Why is Depression in TV Shows Normalized?

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions.

As a New Yorker, I’ve witnessed the gloominess during the lockdown. Times Square was shut down, and millions of homeless people were stranded. I’ve even dealt with uneasy feelings graduating during the pandemic. According to the ADAA, in 2020, about 14.5 million US adults had at least one major depressive episode.

Of adolescents, 4.1 million of them had the same condition. In the wake of COVID-19, depression is a serious topic writers tackle from different angles. From an andromorphic horse like BoJack Horseman to a teenage drug addict on Euphoria.

When you look closely at your favorite TV shows, you’ll see a lot of depression. It’s understandable how depression affects everyone, but why is it popular on television? Mental illness has been a focal point on TV. It hasn’t been more explicit than today. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to reflect on their mental health. Better Help commercials are on every other YouTube ad. There are also antidepressant ads on TV for people with bipolar disorders. 

Public figures like Michelle Obama and Selena Gomez have expressed their mental struggles. Influencers are also spreading mental health tips on their TikTok. Even when we log off, we still log back into our streaming app to watch characters in pain. It leaves us feeling all these intense emotions. Dr. Breylan Haizlip, Founder of Evolution Engineered & Licensed Therapist, “with over 15 years of experience studying the art and science trauma, stated, “We are drawn to seeing ourselves in others,” she continued “TV shows and series, unlike movies, allow us to see the gradual nature of how life and depression progress over time.” She explained that symptomology and identity play a role in normalizing depression.

People see characters parallel to themselves on TV. “[TV shows] allow us to learn symptomology and differences between developmentally and culturally appropriate expressions of depression over time.” As a TV watcher, I’ve had no problem watching dramatic actors portray depression. Seeing an actor pour their heart out in a scene is meaningful. Or see them act a 4-minute monologue about self-hate. All this shows a realistic side to acting.

Believe it or not, dark characters give actors their best roles. Rami Malek and Zendaya both earned Emmys for playing depressed characters on TV. What worked for them was that they made the audience feel submerged in their art. Also, they’ve committed time and energy to the character. This was the symptomology that Dr. Haizlip was discussing.

Depression on TV also forces people to react ambiguously. That’s what makes the topic a complex discussion. Some people don’t want intense subjects on television because of the deep message behind sorrow. For the most part, depression acts as a primary medium for TV. 

The discussion isn’t going away when there are shows like Yellowjackets and The Last of Us. While they aren’t connected to depression, they deal with mental disorders. Trauma is the catalyst behind creating depression-based shows. Yellowjackets deal with the aftermath of overcoming a traumatic event. A group of teenagers are forced to find a way to survive after a 1996 plane crash.  In The Last of Us, Joel deals with the trauma of losing his daughter and surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. Despite each traumatic episode, it kept millions of fans hooked. Both showed how characters dealt with their pain.

Overall, mental health issues are inevitable. If anything, dark characters are giving TV shows their views. Whether with great backstories or plotlines.

“I believe mental health is generational wealth. Seeing depression normalized on TV can save someone’s life. However, we cannot overlook the questionable side of depression being normalized on TV.” Dr. Haizlip added. The question is, should depression be desensitized or self-diagnosing?

As a viewer, I’m learning that writers are becoming braver. Writers aren’t afraid of challenging TV drama. You’ll see tears, bloodshed, and maybe suicide on camera. It may offend people, but we have disclaimers. Shows make it clear when they are going to portray violence on TV.

We must understand, more often than not, that depression is most likely utilized for a purpose. Most directors aren’t going to shoot a gruesome scene without a message. That message could be to never give up on yourself, like in Schindler’s List. Or know you’re not alone in your grief like Rue in Euphoria.

Maybe that’s why depression is normalized on TV because it helps us exercise empathy.

Aaliyah Humphrey

Aaliyah Humphrey

Aaliyah C Humphrey is a culture writer and lifestyle blogger. Born and raised in Brooklyn NY, she loves retro music and random history facts. She has a BA in Communication Arts with a concentration in Digital Media. Her features and reviews are published on my Medium page and wellness blog LEE JOURNALS.

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