Let’s Talk Mental Illness in Animation

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

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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.”

Bojack Horseman

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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.


7 Replies to “Let’s Talk Mental Illness in Animation”

  1. I really liked your point about Bojack. It’s interesting to think of him as sort of an old trope done right. I feel like that feeds into your larger point about misrepresentation and how animators and creators nowadays have the ability to tackle past examples of bad representation very directly, like with Bojack. Furthermore, it always feels like mental illness in media is just a device for characters to do crazy things or to feed into some other point about something entirely unrelated to mental illness. You want to have a character just be a killer but you don’t want to have a nuanced motivation for them so you just make them insane. It’s pretty tired and old but it seems that mental illness has always just been a tool instead of a discussion in it of itself. And, I like that we have stories now that talk about it in the forefront.

  2. Wow, this was really interesting, I never really thought about mental healths portrayal in media. Often mental illness is socially portrayed as just a weak sense of mind and people don’t want to talk about anxiety or depression, when so many people themselves are experiencing it. In film we want to ‘escape’ from our own realities not suddenly trip upon a mirror and look back at ourselves- especially when the lead characters are facing their own tropes of mental illness.
    This is part of the reason why war movies and holocaust documentaries are so hard for me to watch. For often the main character is suffering from intense PTSD, but often they never recover from it. It just ends up bringing back my own PTSD from watching others suffer through their own episodes of extreme violence and massacres.
    One movie that this reminded me of was Inside Out, it was one of those very incredible movies that gave kids and adults a chance to start a conversation about emotions and how what’s going on inside us might affect how we’re feeling, and how it’s ok to feel sad sometimes. While it’s great to show mental health issues it’s also very important to show how one can work through those issues with the main character instead of just shutting those feelings away.

  3. I actually never read too much into this topic of mental illness in animation and never thought much of it until reading this fully. It always did seem that mental illness was a plot point to use temporarily but never something that was a long-standing characteristic or made to be a more complex character. I remember watching The legend of Korra series and thinking this issue was a much bigger deal within the show because it changed the tone and protagonist we follow dramatically while leading us through the story for several episodes. I think this topic is very interesting as it brings up valid arguments for those suffering from mental illnesses as a whole person rather than a broken one.

  4. Hi! I really liked your idea for your journal entry. Mental health has always been an issue, but it is only recently being talked about on the media. I do remember that episode on Full House where a mental illness was talked about once on a 30 minute show. Just having it mentioned once and resolved does not send out a message about mental health to the audience. Mental health on most TV shows or movies are not serious or taken as a joke. I’m glad Korra and Bojack Horseman talked about mental illness in a more serious manner. I usually watch mostly Indian movies and not one of them directly references to mental illness in the movie. Only one actress in all of Bollywood history, Deepika Padukone, in the industry expressed her depression and how she recovered from it. It would be great for more actors and actresses to speak about their recovery to help others.

  5. Very well-done Jenica! It’s really fascinating how cartoons in the past 10 years have delved into the topic. In shows like Bojack, it’s also interesting to see the realistic patterns of mental illness, and how recovery can be grueling and not always linear. I hope in the future more cartoons delve into the the subject, because mental health awareness is critical for children and adults alike.

  6. I agree with the part where you said violent or incorrect depictions might have bad effects on people with mental illnesses who are watching these shows. Not just in animation, but most tv shows and movies have very stereotypical representation of the topic. Especially the ones that are geared towards teen audiences, featuring teen or young adult characters. This puts more stress by forcing an idea of how things should be, how they should be, and how even mental illness should be, on these young people who are already struggling to find their identities. I recently watched a musical called Next to Normal, as someone who has her fair share of mental problems I found it very touching and inspirational. Definetely would recommend to anyone who might be interested in such stories.

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