The Portrayal Of Mental Illness On TV

Ahead of my #TalkMH chat this Thursday, I wanted explore two of my favourite TV shows and look at how they portray mental illness.

Gilmore girls

As much as I hate to say it, because GG is my absolute favourite TV show, I strongly dislike how it portrays therapy.

In season 6, episode 11 (‘The Perfect Dress’), Rory is asked to attend therapy following her recent time away from college. From Lorelai’s initial reaction (‘I can’t believe you’re going to a therapist’ followed by a joke about the old cliché of therapists asking about your mother) to the actual session itself, nothing in this episode is handled sensitively at all.

The scene itself is an absolute farce, starting with Rory’s obvious disdain towards her therapist and ending with over-the-top crying. It makes me cringe every time.

Rory Gilmore crying

Afterwards, she calls Lorelai and opens with, ‘Guess who’s crazy?’

Huh.

I’ll forgive it though, because this episode first aired back in 2005 and let’s be honest, Gilmore girls was never particularly PC.

Fast-forward to 2016 though, and we have the revival episodes. *Warning: Spoilers ahead!*

Sigh. Where to start?

I had high hopes when Lorelai sensitively suggested Emily see a professional to help her through her grief. But then we get to the therapist who seems alright at first, but quickly becomes more and more ridiculous.

Firstly, can we talk about the obvious frustration and lack of empathy she shows when she’s rushing them out of their sessions?

And then, when she turns up in Stars Hollow (I’m sorry, why?!), bounds up to Lorelai (so unprofessional!!) and announces she’s auditioning for the musical, I couldn’t stop myself from sighing. So we’re supposed to believe that Emily and Lorelai were such difficult clients they drove her to give up her career as a therapist in favour of performing in small town musical? Sure. That makes sense.

Girl rolling her eyes

I feel like the therapy was used more as a comedic device than to drive the plot. Case in point: the infamous letter that Emily mentions to Lorelai that never comes up again. I’m not saying therapy can’t or shouldn’t be portrayed in a funny way, I just think the humour here missed the mark. And I was disappointed that we didn’t see the whole thing handled more sensitively.

That said, I liked that Lorelai continued to go by herself, and ultimately her sessions did lead her to somewhat of an epiphany about her own life.

Overall though, not impressed.

The Big Bang Theory

Now, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

I know a lot of people don’t particularly like how Sheldon’s OCD is portrayed but personally I can relate a lot to him.

The rituals (knocking three times), the obsessive need for closure and to an extent his cleanliness, all struck a chord with me.

Sheldon knocking on the door

This is perfectly illustrated in season 7, episode 8 (‘The Itchy Brain Simulation’), when Sheldon likens his need for closure to an ‘itch on his brain’ that leaves him feeling uncomfortable and anxious. I can’t think of a better way to describe OCD. He urges Leonard to walk a mile in his shoes by wearing an itchy jumper. OCD is so difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, so I think it’s particularly clever that Sheldon suggests mimicking it with a physical sensation.

Though Leonard gains a better understanding of his friend’s struggles, he still teases him and calls him crazy. Rather than taking offense though, I applaud the show’s accuracy. It’s been my experience that people often can’t relate, so Leonard’s lack of understanding rang true with me.

In another episode, Sheldon’s girlfriend Amy tries to help him overcome his OCD, by encouraging him to start various tasks without finishing them. Challenging his compulsive need to see everything through is very difficult for Sheldon and I really related to his struggle. The strain is visible on his face and the episode ends with him doing the tasks again, this time to completion.

While some could argue that The Big Bang Theory stigmatises OCD, I would personally disagree. I think it’s great that the show is helping to ‘normalise’ OCD and bring it into the mainstream. More than that, I like that it doesn’t just focus on cleanliness, as of course there’s so much more to it than that. Anything that helps more people realise this is a good thing in my book.

It’s not always a perfect representation, but I find it relatable and at times very sensitively handled.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. If you can’t make it to the chat (this Thursday 13th April at 8:30pm) please feel free to tweet me, or leave a comment below.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. April 12, 2017 / 12:55 am

    This was so spot on! I love GG too, but all of the therapy jokes/scenarios seemed to miss their marks every time they tried to. I get that Lorelai and Rory mock everything, but honestly, their rich, uptight family truly NEEDED therapy, haha. (I mean, Emily is STILL not over Lorelai getting pregnant at 16!!!)

    And I haven’t watched TBBT in a while, but I love the concept of Sheldon having Leonard wear an itchy sweater! And it’s true, a lot of people will NEVER ever understand mental illness and what others go through, much like how I may never know what it’s truly like to go through some other issue (as much as I’d try to sympathize). I really don’t mind mild, actually funny jokes about mental illness, as long as it’s tongue and cheek and there’s some understanding/truth in it, NOT when it’s demeaning or cruel.

    xo, Emily

  2. April 12, 2017 / 1:27 pm

    Several friends have been watching GG and loving it, but never said anything about these terrible depictions of MH and therapy. I’m not sure I want to try watching it, now.

    I’ve seen up to mid 9th season of the Big Bang and can relate to Sheldon on some degrees, though my own OCD is far less proudhonienne than his or any of my other MI’s. I remember that episode with the itch and found it to be very realistic and a positive way – one has to walk in someone else’s shoes and experience what it is. Now, the fact that Leonard cannot get it is also quite normal because the itchy jumper doesn’t come with the thoughts and anxieties that OCD brings, so he just cannot fully comprehend, intellectually and even less so, emotionally.

    I know that I have the same OCD regarding the seating, but don’t share the need to see things to completion as I leave a lot of mess and unfinished things and projects. I do have the tendency to be extreme in all-or-nothing reactions, which might be OCD, I’m not actually sure. Example, someone asking me to turn the volume down when I listen to music and I end up stopping it altogether (is it ocd ? or?). I’m trying to work on that.

    Am looking forward to discuss more in DM’s as well as talkmh – 140 character limit will be difficult to say the least!

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