Mental Illness in the Media: I’m not a character or a caricature

crazygoodparent media images of mental illnessI have lived with and experienced depression in its various forms and manifestations throughout my life: Seasonal Affective Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, situational depression, and a misdiagnosis of Dysthymic Depression (a chronic, low-level form of depression) which has turned out to be Cyclothymia (a “low-level” form of Bipolar Disorder). My mother committed suicide when I was 12, according to the death certificate and police reports. I recently discovered from a family member who knew her as an adolescent and in childhood that my mother likely experienced Bipolar Disorder with Schizophrenia. It turns out that her mother, the grandmother who had the most influence on me and my life, likely experienced a form of Trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). Several members of my family have self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. I have a food addiction to carbohydrates and tend to eat compulsively, or even sometimes refuse to eat when I need to. Toxic, co-dependent, and unhealthy relationships have been characteristic for most of us.

This is what normal has been for me in my life, in the lives of my children and other family members.

I can tell you that living with these things is not entertaining or funny, most of the time. The times when we do find ourselves laughing at the humor in our circumstances and idiosyncrasies are also the times when we would least welcome the laughter of those on the outside of our experiences.

As television and movies have evolved over the past four decades, I have witnessed how people who experience mental illnesses and disorders are portrayed has changed and how we are talked about. What was once treated with pity and shame is often now sensationalized and ridiculed for the sake of ratings. Pundits, politicians, and reality show producers have taken mental health labels and diagnoses, filtered them through their paradigms and agendas, and created caricatures based on limited characteristics of these diagnoses.

When I first saw episodes of Jerry Springer with people who had lives that looked a lot like mine, being put on display and incited to act out their dysfunctions on live television for the entertainment and ridicule of the masses, it increased my own internal sense of shame and isolation.

Seeing a character on a police procedural drama, such as Blue Bloods, on trial for killing another human being because she had been “off her meds” for treatment of Bipolar Disorder, and observing that she never once had a voice, while the “expert witness” for the prosecution was given all the attention, only to realize that his character had little actual knowledge or interest in the person being prosecuted and her actual experiences with mental health issues, made me want to cringe and cry.

The show Mike & Molly does a better job of portraying the realities of living with dysfunctions which are symptomatic of mental health issues. Anyone who has experienced many of the things I have can easily see that Molly is suffering and experiencing the mental health equivalent of a nervous breakdown from having lived a life affected by her mother’s and sister’s alcoholism and drug addictions, and living her life in reaction to uncontrollable things happening inside of her brain. She’s married to a man who has definite mother issues and they both have disordered eating. However, there’s a lot of fun and laughter; mom is a home-owner, and despite how annoyed, denigrating, and damaging they can be to each other, they are all one, big, happy, dysfunctional family.

While I appreciate these things being brought into mainstream media in relatable ways, I’m also quite aware that Molly, Mike, and the rest of the characters in this sitcom are caricatures of people like myself and people I know who struggle to come to terms with our own special brands of crazy and still function when the world around us thinks of us as ridiculous and not to be taken seriously, or dangerous and not to be trusted to live our lives among the rest of what is assumed to a neurotypical population.

The differences in our brains and in the development of our intellect, emotional, and social selves may cause us to say and do things in ways which are unfamiliar and outside what others consider to be “normal.” However, being different doesn’t mean we don’t have the same needs as anyone else. We are human beings who need to be heard, accepted, loved, validated, and treated with compassion, consideration, and kindness.

Just because our words don’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to speak them. Our ideas, dreams, hopes, and experiences are as valid as anyone else’s. If we can be accepted by others and if others are willing to learn and understand what our lives are like and how we experience the world, then we can end the stigma and shame.

Don’t let how people experiencing life in these ways as portrayed in movies, television, and the internet be the only ways in which we are seen, heard, and understood. If you or a loved one experiences a mental illness or disorder, has an intellectual disability or cognitive delay, and experiences the world in different ways, please start sharing those experiences. Don’t let the agendas and interpretations of people looking only to profit be the only information you take in. If you know of someone who experiences these things, or even if you don’t know that you know, reach out and seek to understand and view the world from that perspective.

I’m tired of feeling shame and ridicule from what I see about how people who are neurodiverse are portrayed. I want to show my daughter something better and raise her to be aware and not ashamed of her differences. I can’t do it alone, will you help me?

3 responses to “Mental Illness in the Media: I’m not a character or a caricature

  1. A well-meaning school administrator once attempted to reassure me that popular television shows embracing Autism Spectrum disorders would inform my son’s peers and create greater awareness; thereby easing some of the growing pains of his complicated social experiences and endearing him to others. In my mind, and the more tender places of my heart, I ached with the truth that my son’s life is not set to a laugh track to diffuse confusion with comedy, there are no tidy resolutions at the end of each challenge, and his complexity is greater than the most endearing character. We cannot allow media to mold our assumptions or inform in muddled messages bound by sitcom stereotypes. It takes a village.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful reflection on this topic.


    • Marie,
      I can completely understand. Sadly, it took a long while for me to recognize and realize that some of my own personal difficulties in self-understanding and self-acceptance as well as the acceptance and understanding of others, was damaged and hindered, in large part, by what is portrayed in the media and how we become programmed to perceive ourselves and others through those filters.

      I’m glad what was written resonated with you.



  2. I have a hard time with the media portrayal of bipolar disorder. It’s difficult enough living with the disorder, but to see it put on display with grossly mistaken information as well, it’s infuriating to me. Too many people believe what they see on TV and disregard what they see irl. I want an open and honest dialogue about MI to occur in the media, but as long as producers and directors care more about sensationalism and ratings than they do actual people’s suffering, I fear it will never happen. Just my two cents.


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