According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. And when it comes to kids, 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have, or will have a serious mental illness. The bottom line is this: millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions every year. As an animator and filmmaker who has dealt with depression and anxiety, I can’t help but wonder about the ways mental health is depicted in media and how it truly affects its audiences. Growing up, it felt like many times when a character was shown to have a mental illness, that was their defining characteristic and it ultimately led to some offensive stereotype that was way off mark. According to Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley, “The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill individuals as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving. The portrayals serve to distance ‘them’ from the rest of ‘us.’” I couldn’t agree more. However, while there are some notoriously flawed depictions of mental illness in media, I wanted to look at two more honest depictions of mental health conditions that are out there in animation. With such honest and more positive depictions of mental health conditions in media, I believe it can greatly impact those who tune in to watch it. So let’s discuss —
The Legend of Korra
A truly legendary animated series, Korra follows the adventures of its protagonist as she attempts to master the four elements and bring peace and harmony to the world. In her journey, however, Korra is poisoned by one of her enemies and survives, albeit with severe trauma. Though her mental health condition is not explicitly diagnosed as Post-Traumatic stress disorder within the show, it shows all the signs. After Korra survives from the poison, it is clear that she is not her “usual” self; as a direct result from the event, she is weakened and can’t function by herself.
What is amazing about The Legend of Korra is that unlike other shows with a hero protagonist, it displays mental health as something that can happen to anyone. Not only this, Korra shows how mental health is acquired, how it can affect someone, and how someone can support a friend struggling with mental illness. The character of Asami, Korra’s friend and ultimate love interest, writes letters to Korra and takes time out of her day to support her physically and emotionally. Eventually, Korra is able to make an improvement in her health and recover, ending the series with her and Asami taking a trip to the Spirit World together.
That last bit is especially significant as it showcases the importance of relationships for someone suffering with mental illness. One of the biggest reasons mental illness is misrepresented in the media is because people living with them are are almost always shown as people who simply cannot recover. Dr. Otto Wahl, director of the graduate institute of professional psychology at Connecticut’s University of Hartford states, “Recover is seldom shown. When people [are shown seeking] therapy, when they go to psychiatric hospitals – rarely do they get better. [And if they do get better,] it’s enough that they’re stabilized, but not enough so that … they’re integrated with the world, and have friends and jobs.”
Upon first examination, the premise of Bojack Horseman seems entirely unrealistic: a show about a washed up sitcom star who also happens to be a walking, talking horse. While others see it as just that, many viewers recognize the animated series for its realistic depiction of depression and addiction. Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg states, “The goal was never like, ‘Let’s really create an expose, let’s really investigate this kind of thing, let’s diagnose BoJack in a certain way.’ I think it was more about just trying to write this character truthfully, and taking him seriously. The idea [was to take] a character trope that is maybe a little archetypal, or that we’ve seen before, but really believing in it, and trying to be honest and respectful to it.”
To many people, Bojack Horseman is an honest portrayal of depression. In contrast to the problem that Korra combats, Bojack fights the notion in many TV shows that mental health conditions can be fixed in a simple episode or 30 minutes. You see this kind of problem in so many other shows, like in Full House when D.J. had anorexia for an episode and it was never mentioned again, or in Hey Arnold! when Sid is implied to have OCD but it also magically goes away.
Not only does the show focus on Bojack’s mental health condition and his struggles, it also gives the audience insight into the struggles of almost every other character. Bojack Horseman showcases a multitude of different ways someone deals with depression through not just the stereotypical one depressed protagonist, but everyone in the universe itself. You see it in Diane Nguyen’s character when she shuts down and disappears, Sarah Lynn when she consistently turns to drugs, and Mr. Peanutbutter as he puts on a fake smile.
Why is this Important?
These two examples of representation are extremely important. Especially in the case of Bojack Horseman, it allows people to feel seen and heard. Good depictions of mental health conditions really make a difference for audience members. They show people with mental illness as complex, relatable people. It can also give people insight as to what loved ones with mental illness could be feeling, which really helps in the long run when you want to support those loved ones. Back in 2010, a UK study found that almost half of fictional characters with mental illness have storylines depicting them as violent. That kind of negative portrayal in media can have a similarly negative impact on those with mental illness watching it.
When you watch shows in the future, try looking out for how they portray those with mental health conditions. Are they referred to as crazy? Are they shown as someone with violent tendencies? What is the show saying about those with mental illness? I believe that with more positive depictions of mental health conditions, media and animation can make more of a genuine difference in someone’s life.