Content note: This article contains spoilers and discussion of mental health issues and suicide.
Entertainment hasn’t always explored mental health issues or substance use respectfully – it more often romanticises mental illness, addiction struggles, and the like.
This paints a picture for those who are neurotypical and may not have loved ones who have mental health or substance use issues, and romanticisation especially skews the realities.
Today, it’s not as hard to find storylines accurately involving these issues.
These are some critical examples of characters with mental illnesses or addictions who aren’t depicted poorly – even with downfalls, negative impacts, and uncomfortable topics.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Horror and supernatural dramas aren’t without substance the way people think they are, and relationship dramas and teenage angst aren’t always the primary focus.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer took a very dark turn in its sixth season.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was brought back from the dead by some of her loved ones.
Instead of being happy to be back, Buffy is disconnected and struggles with severe depression because she was happier in what she described as heaven.
Her depression isn’t played for laughs either.
Buffy is visibly different and self-loathing, getting into a destructive and toxic relationship with Spike (James Marsters).
Her mental health is written in an uncomfortably real way.
In one of the most iconic episodes (‘Once More, with Feeling’), Buffy even goes so far as to try to kill herself by way of spontaneous combustion.
Overall, the writers manage to handle Buffy’s mental health with care.
How to Get Away with Murder
Legal thrillers and dramas are more known for shocking storylines and workplace drama than anything else.
How to Get Away with Murder has that, but the show also captures the ways trauma and substance abuse affect people.
Its central character, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), struggles with alcoholism and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
While other characters struggle with mental health and substance use, Annalise’s story is especially crucial in representing a Black bisexual character allowing herself to show weakness.
Annalise’s alcoholism isn’t glorified, and there are visible consequences, such as losing her job and personal relationships, as well as the murders and other crimes she helps cover up for those in her life.
The writers never fail to remind the audience that much trauma comes with being Black and queer in the world.
Annalise’s trauma is deeply rooted because of society and her own history.
For a show about getting away with murder and chaos, it sure has depth.
The Netflix series Spinning Out was fresh in the sense, unlike teen sports dramas, it focuses mostly on adults.
Kat Baker (Kaya Scodelario) is a talented figure skater who must give up the sport after a terrible fall, returning as a pair skater with her eventual boyfriend.
Her family issues, especially with her mother (January Jones), who has bipolar disorder, make things all the more difficult for her.
Bipolar disorder is not frequently depicted on television, and while the show isn’t perfect in its writing, it accurately depicts mania and psychosis and the strains of suffering in shame and silence.
Both Kat and her mother deal with their own private shames, resulting in failed and strained relationships throughout their lives.
Even with its flaws, the show captures well some aspects of bipolar disorder.
Undeniably raw and breathtakingly real are the HBO hit Euphoria and its stellar cast who show different life experiences – most of which aren’t so great, especially for Rue Bennett (Zendaya) and Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schaefer).
We explore the character’s lives through the voice of primary character Rue, an unreliable narrator and mentally ill addict – so some things become skewed.
Director and writer Sam Levinson helped birth something special because of his experiences with substance use, showing Rue’s realistic struggles.
Her romantic interest, Jules, is far from a stable person herself, from being in a psychiatric facility as a child (mainly due to severe depression from gender dysphoria) to her unhealthy and dangerous sexual endeavours.
The story makes for a recipe for pain and the unfortunate reality of being neurodivergent and marginalised for both of them.
While some aspects of the show are melodramatic (what else can be expected?), it’s not as far-fetched as some may think.
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