Mental health and its portrayal on TV

A while back I talked about how mental illness and therapy are portrayed in various TV shows.

I found this a really interesting post to write and since then, I’ve been particularly impressed by how mental health has been explored in two particular shows. Spoilers ahead – though I’m talking about season 5 of Suits and Star Trek TNG, so I wouldn’t worry too much!

Suits

This may sound strange, but when Harvey started having panic attacks at the start of season 5, I was thrilled. Finally we had a strong, confident man experiencing severe bouts of anxiety, rather than the tired, predictable portrayals I’m used to seeing (Big Bang Theory’s Stuart, I’m looking at you). I think this is such a great thing to see because it drives home the point that mental illness can happen to anyone – regardless of wealth, success or any other factors – and reminds people that outward appearances can be deceiving.

Harvey Specter having a panic attack

Harvey up until this point had been portrayed as a stoic character who, it could be argued, was not very in touch with his emotions. When things started to go wrong in his personal life though, it began to take a toll on him, and ultimately frightened him so much that he started seeing a psychiatrist.

In these sessions with Dr Agard, we see him resisting her efforts to help him, as he struggles to be honest with her. She starts to dig a bit deeper and it becomes clear that his current problems stem from much larger, more deep-rooted issues. I’m only a few episodes into the season, but I’m excited to see how this story line develops.

What I liked…

  • Harvey’s honesty with Mike when he tells him he’s having a panic attack.
  • Straight after, when Mike asks if Harvey’s alright, rather than brushing it off, Harvey admits he’s not.
  • The realistic way the panic attacks are portrayed, showing the overwhelming physical symptoms: racing heart, sweating, vomiting. I thought these scenes were very well done.
  • The fact that Dr Agard insists Harvey talks to her, refusing to just prescribe him medication. One thing I’ve learned is that talking therapies and medication go hand-in-hand, and I’m glad this is being explored on the show.
  • The balance between Harvey being vulnerable while also still being his usual self. Though I suspect he may continue to unravel and I’m interested to see where the show takes him, at the moment I like that he’s struggling, while still being high-functioning. It’s a realistic portrayal of what many people go through each day, and the way the anxiety is slowly creeping its way into his life and affecting his work as he tries to keep afloat is very relatable.
  • The way it showed that therapy isn’t an instant fix. My heart sank when Harvey triumphantly threw his medication away, because I thought the writers were just using the panic attacks as a one-off dramatic device. I’m so glad the therapist didn’t just say a few magic words and instantly ‘fix’ him. It’s much more realistic that he didn’t experience an immediate breakthrough and again, I’m excited to see how his experiences continue to develop his character.

…and what I didn’t

  • The ‘mind-reading therapist’ trope. When she told him ‘I had you pegged from the moment you walked in’ I have to admit I rolled my eyes slightly.
  • Dr Agard’s openness with Harvey. Some of what she divulges to him and the poker game they have later didn’t really ring true to me, but then again, I’m not a psychiatrist, so who knows?
  • This hasn’t happened yet, so it’s possibly unfair to put it in the dislikes column, but I have a feeling they will end up dating and I really hope they don’t.

The verdict

I’m a big fan of Suits and absolutely love Harvey as a character, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how he continues to try and overcome his anxiety. I sincerely hope he doesn’t just end up in a relationship with Donna and that’s the end of his panic attacks. I’m so sick of the ‘love fixes everything, even mental illness’ rubbish we see so much in films and TV shows.

Very important scientific side-note:

Would you just look at him? *Inserts a million heart eyes emojis*

Harvey Specter GIF

Star Trek: The Next Generation

I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek since I was a kid. Everyone knows it’s always been ahead of its time in many ways, but I’ve started to notice recently that it was also ahead of its time in the way it tackled ‘difficult’ subjects like suicide and grief, while normalising the idea of seeing a counsellor.

What I liked…

  • The fact the Enterprise not only had a ship’s counsellor, but that she was an integral part of the bridge crew and a close confidant of the captain. It’s a shame this wasn’t a role that the other Star Trek franchises had.
  • The episode ‘Hero Worship’, in which a young boy attempts to avoid confronting the grief of losing his parents by ‘becoming’ an android and mimicking Data’s mannerisms. With Troi’s guidance, Data forms a strong bond with the child and helps him work through his feelings slowly rather than avoiding them.
  • The episodes following Picard’s assimilation into the Borg collective, as he tries to cope with his trauma and readjust to life back on the Enterprise.
  • The episode where Troi has to help her mother uncover repressed memories of the child she lost. This is all done very symbolically, with Troi delving into her mother’s Betazoid psyche to try and understand the self-preservation mechanisms her mind has put in place. Look out for a very young Kirsten Dunst!
  • Troi as a character. I always admired her integrity, compassion and empathic abilities.
  • Voyager also had a couple of great episodes, my favourite being ‘Extreme Risk’. After finding out all her Maquis friends are dead, B’Elanna starts to deal with her grief in unhealthy ways, such as taking part in extreme holodeck programs with the safety controls off.

…and what I didn’t

  • Nothing! Unless there are any episodes I’ve forgotten about (please comment if so!), as far as I’m concerned, any episodes that dealt with mental health, grief or suicide did so cleverly and sensitively.

Side-notes:

  • Deanna had the most incredible curls and was very much the envy of my frizzy-haired nine year old self.
  • I adore both of these kick-ass ladies and their friendship.

Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher

And a cheeky but very special mention to…Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I could (and probably will) fill an entire blog post with reasons I adore this show – go and watch it, now! It’s funny, relatable and moving in equal measures, and I promise you will fall in love with Rebecca Bunch.

Rebecca Bunch

If you want to watch any of the shows I’ve mentioned, they’re all available on Netflix. You’re welcome.

2 Comments

  1. October 7, 2017 / 7:24 pm

    Ooh, I had no idea that Suits dealt with mental health! My friends been begging me to watch this show for months and I didn’t really take the recommendation seriously, but I might give it a watch now. I love being able to relate to characters in shows. I love that this shows a male portrayal of anxiety, too, as anxiety seems to be considered a largely female thing nowadays and it’s about time it changed. Thanks for writing this blog post; I was looking for something new to watch for a while.

    • Geek Magnifique
      October 16, 2017 / 11:34 am

      I would definitely recommend, you’ll be hooked! MH wise, I’m slightly disappointed with the route it’s going down, but I’d still say it’s good it tackled it in the first place. 🙂 x

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