Growing up with a neurodevelopment disorder and mental illness, it's easy to feel isolated from the rest of the world. It is not common to look around and see someone that experiences situations similar to the ones you endure. Even if you do come across a person that is also perceived to be "different" in the eyes of society, the negative connotations instilled in everyday life are quick to silence your voice and knock you down before you have a chance to realize that who you are is more than okay--it's normal. This is a big reason why anything that brings understanding and shines a light on what people with neurodevelopment disorders and mental illness go through on a regular basis comes around a sense of relief and happiness fills the body.
In light of this, I went on a hunt to find characters in television and cinema that accurately portray the complexities of developmental disorders and mental health.
1. PTSD: Charlie Kelmeckis, "Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Throughout the story, Charlie avoids situations in which he has to discuss the trauma he endured as a child or be around anything that may bring on a memory of it. He suffers heavily from the inability to remember aspects of his trauma and leans heavily on negative beliefs about himself related to his aunt's death as well as feelings of detachment from others. For example, Charlie witnesses a physically abusive altercation between his older sister and her boyfriend which causes him to have a flashback, or what some may better describe as a dissociation, of times he spent with his Aunt Helen, his abuser. Lastly, Charlie experiences outbursts of anger, irritability, and difficulty with concentration amongst other arousal and reactivity symptoms. Charlie also experiments with a variety of drugs throughout the story. In the end, Charlie receives psychotherapy to help him gain control and finally process the devastating moments in his life.
The College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists states, "Overall, "Perks of Being a Wallflower" accurately portrays the symptoms of PTSD in an adolescent who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse as a child. It also provides a positive image of psychiatry and a psychiatric hospital which is rare in Hollywood. Films providing this kind of insight into psychiatric conditions help eliminate the stigmas we still see today. Overall, the movie was well done and touching."
2. Depression: "BoJack Horseman"
"BoJack Horseman" is arguably one of the best depictions of mental illness in the media today. Instead of sticking to textbook definitions and focusing in on one small aspect of a disorder an exploiting it, "BoJack Horseman" dives into what mental illness is like on a personal level, behind closed doors, and at varying levels of intensity.
"BoJack" also takes viewers further into the inner landscape of depression than any other show, never shying away from depicting what it's like to have a disease that convinces you that you are poison, that the world is worse off with you in it. "BoJack Horseman" excels most in moments like this, where it examines elements of depression known only by those who suffer from it.
The Beacon writes, "Bojack" raises the bar for how media should depict mental illness as there is something for anyone to relate to in the wide variety of characters in the show. "BJjack" does not tackle mental illness through stereotypes and shock value because viewers have seen enough of that and television doesn't need more of it. Instead, the raw view inside each character shows how complex mental illness is, and how we are not alone in our suffering even if we tell ourselves we are."
3. Aspergers: Max Braverman, "Parenthood"
"Parenthood" takes to the frontlines to be one of the first shows on television to dive into the social isolation, family life, stigma, and other complexities that come with someone on the autism spectrum. Viewers are given the chance to see Max from a very young age receive his diagnosis and watch as he grows into a young man and gain an understanding of who he is and how Aspergers plays a role in that. Throughout the series, Max deals with difficulty socializing which makes things difficult at home and brings on unwanted, negative attention at school. With Max's family all being very close, different looks into social interactions, and how someone with Aspergers may or may not pick up on certain cues are also shown on multiple occasions. The show in no way depicts Aspergers to not come with its challenges, frustration, breakdowns, and many arguments that occur in the series. However, one of the things I like most about Max's portrayal is that it always includes the positives that come with Aspergers.
Writer Jason Katim draws inspiration from his son who has Aspergers Syndrome to create the character we know as Max. Katim along with the other writers research and works diligently to give an authentic representation for the world to see and connect to.
An analysis of the show proclaims, ""Parenthood" does an amazing job in developing Max not only in overcoming aspects of his diagnosis but, as a person. He discovers his passions, makes friends, and falls in love. He has the same experiences as the rest of us and Parenthood does a wonderful job of showcasing that. The authentic way in which Max Braverman is characterized by "Parenthood" helps to raise awareness for Autism."
4. Anorexia: Ellen, "To The Bone"
Ellen is introduced at 20 years old. By this time she has been to at least five inpatient treatment centers for her eating disorder. In one scene Ellen plays a game with her younger sister where she is challenged to identify the correct calorie count of multiple foods. Ellen has never given a wrong answer. Calorie counting as well as self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, bingeing, chewing and spitting, loss of menses, calorie counting, fear of gaining weight, and food restriction are all shown throughout the movie. In multiple scenes, Ellen is found on the floor of her bedroom doing sit-ups which are later revealed to be the cause of major bruising to her back and ribs.
Once placed in a residential group for people with eating disorders, "To The Bone" begins to show some diversity by including people of various sizes suffering from Anorexia, Bulimia, as well as Binge Eating Disorder. The group members' amount of say in their treatment is not common in reality, the basic building blocks are there. The patients are monitored by a physician, psychologist, dietician, nutritionist, and a home advisor.
As far as building relationships go, Ellen and her housemates are able to build a nice family dynamic and support system. This is typically harder to do in the real world.
While everything displayed in this film does not check all the boxes for all people, it does portray eating disorders well enough for someone to be able to see themselves in the characters. If your child has an active eating disorder, ask if they feel "To The Bone" accurately represents their experience and if they were affected by any parts of the movie. Discuss how this is one person's story and talk about how other stories might look different.
Nationwide Children's sends the following reminder:
"To The Bone" raises awareness of eating disorders and demonstrates the resistance to treatment one might experience. Eating disorders result in serious consequences if left untreated. If your child or someone you know is struggling with one, please reach out for help or encourage them to do so.
5. Borderline Personality Disorder: Rebecca Bunch, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"
The dive into mental health in this series begins with Rebecca having flashbacks of her upbringing where it is unveiled that she has spent some time in a psychiatric clinic. From there we follow along as she bounces on and off different medications as well as in and out of therapy. Eventually, Rebecca's struggles with her mental health and anxiety reach a point that drives her to attempt an irreversible act.
As heavy as that may sound, the show is still a musical comedy. Which is another reason why the depiction of mental health is so admirable. Even with everything, Rebecca is dealing with we still get to see the funny, talented, witty side to her. Instead of a one-dimensional "crazy" person whose entire identity is the stereotypical and negative sides of depression, Rebecca Bunch shows the multiple levels to the disorder. She also takes us on a true venture through therapy. While the media usually shows one or two half sessions and then the character is "cured," Rebecca shows that therapy is a process with its own set of ups and downs to work through.
When it comes to her attempt, we see everything that led up to it. We see her mounting stress and all-consuming mental health issues come to the forefront. We see her instantly regret her decision, we also see her guilt in the aftermath and her asking for, and getting, help-all in detail. These are all things that are not normally elaborated on.
One of the bigger moments in the show is Rebecca's diagnosis. Borderline Personality Disorder is a heavily stigmatized mental illness. People with this disorder are categorized as manipulative, unlikeable, attention-seeking, without the ability to love romantically and/or platonically, amongst other things. The effects of this stigma can be seen when Rebecca falls into despair after researching her new diagnosis. The series is quick to debunk the stigma as the show goes on. The tough reality for Rebecca and many living with mental illness or any other illness, whether it be a developmental disorder or disease that affects your life: you can't pick and choose how your mind and body experience it and recovery takes time and effort.
Rebecca Bunch's accurately portrayed journey through the battle to live every day with the symptoms of mental illness, getting professional help, the privilege of being diagnosed and actively working to understand and manage one's mental illness is something you don't come across regularly in the media, but it definitely should be.