Last weekend, I woke up looking forward to a fun day of rock climbing with my friends. I jumped out of bed, opened the blinds… and was promptly greeted by the unholy sight of Montreal caught in a huge snowstorm. “Well,” I thought, “there go all my plans for the day.”
When the weather decides to turn your city into a world of ice, you may find that your best (and only) option is to curl up in front of Netflix with a warm cup of tea. Exercise and social time are essential to our mental well-being, and everyone should make time for them. But the truth is that, for a lot of people out there, watching TV is a big part of stress management - especially in the age of Netflix.
As entertainment becomes an ever bigger part of our lives, it’s important that the shows we watch offer accurate portrayals of mental illness. Think about why celebrities champion public causes, and why it matters. We get similar things from seeing a show portray a condition that affects us: acknowledgement of our existence, recognition of our struggle, and validation of our courage.
So let’s not be too prompt in dismissing television and entertainment as “lazy” pastimes - especially since, as has been recently shown, you need to keep them on hand for a rainy (or snowy) day. Without further ado, here’s my shout-out to three shows that have dealt with mental health-related topics in a thoughtful and inspiring manner. Feel free to check ‘em out during the next snowstorm!
An accurate depiction of OCD on Scrubs
If you’re looking for a medical TV show that’s less dramatic than Grey’s Anatomy and not as paranoia-inducing as House, M.D., this one’s for you. It holds a special place in my heart, as the first TV show where I saw a genuine and inspiring portrayal of a character with OCD.
In the season three episode “My Catalyst,” the whole hospital falls under the charm of Dr. Kevin Casey, a brilliant surgeon who happens to have OCD. While his tics are immediately noticeable, it doesn’t stop people from flocking to him for advice. In fact, the guy seems almost annoyingly perfect… until the end of the day, when J.D. sees him exhausted as he compulsively washes his hands for the umpteenth time.
“I spent the last few days meeting new people and… trying to get used to this place, and I’m stressed and I’m fried… and I just want to go home… But here’s the punchline: even though my last surgery was two hours ago, I can’t stop washing my damn hands.”
Like the great majority of people with mental disorders, Casey is incredibly lucid about his condition: he knows exactly where this mental pathway leads because his brain has taken him through it over a thousand times.
“Everyone’s got their own burdens, J.D., and I’m not gonna be one of those people that dumps mine on somebody else. Now whatta you need?”
When I first saw this episode, I was a teenager recently diagnosed with OCD. I was feeling angry, and wronged, and overall very sorry for myself. There are definitely pitfalls to Casey’s “toughen it out” attitude; but in my case, hearing those words gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start “owning my burdens,” as J.D. puts it.
This episode is the full package: instead of reducing OCD to a quirky personality trait, it shows all the suffering that comes with the disorder. At the same time, it avoids the trap of falling into self-pity and incites one to take responsibility. If you need proof that someone can have problems with their mental health, and be a responsible adult, and a good person, and a source of inspiration for others - I present to you, Dr. Kevin “Superdoc” Casey.
(Ok, so he’s a fictional character, but let’s just put that aside for the moment).
Fullmetal Alchemist: A thoughtful reflection on trauma
Fullmetal Alchemist is an anime based on a manga by Hiromu Arakawa. While mental health is never explicitly brought up, the concept of trauma is a major theme in the story: a teenager adjusting to his prosthetic limbs after losing an arm and a leg; shell-shocked soldiers drowning in guilt after a devastating war; a woman dealing with infertility after a miscarriage.
Greed: You seem pretty mature for a fourteen-year-old boy.
Alphonse Elric: ...Thanks, it’s the trauma.
Cold winter days can be a great opportunity to explore new TV shows guilt free.
Despite it being a fantasy steampunk anime, the show relates these experiences in a surprisingly genuine way - probably thanks to the author’s interviews of real life war veterans, refugees, and disabled people.
Fortunately, Arakawa is extremely efficient at lightening the mood with comic relief: when you aren’t sobbing your eyes out, you’ll be laughing so hard your sides will hurt. The show wraps it all up with a profoundly optimistic message about humans: that we can come to terms with our trauma and grow into strong, resilient people with “fullmetal hearts.” If you’re being forced indoors by the cold snowy weather, I 100% recommend watching FMA: it is warm, nourishing food for the soul.
South Park’s surprisingly subtle treatment of anxiety
South Park hardly has the reputation of a sweet, child-friendly cartoon. Over the years, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have released several controversial episodes on the topic of mental health. One that I especially liked was Season 22’s “Put it Down,” which focuses on secondary character Tweek’s anxiety over political tensions between America and North Korea.
While the panicky blond spirals into fits of random screaming and hair-pulling, his boyfriend Craig does his best to calm him down. While his gestures are well-intentioned, Craig makes the same mistake that many caring partners make: trying to negate the anxiety without confronting it first.
Craig: Tweek, honey, all week you’ve been freaking out and I’ve been the one forced to deal with it.
Tweek: You haven’t been dealing with it! You’ve been trying to make it go away because my emotions are freaking you out!
The episode does a great job of exploring both characters’ points of view. Craig’s frustration is understandable: it’s not easy to see a person you care about suffering, and it can get tiring to support them. But we also get the perspective of a person with mental illness, nothing is more exasperating than someone assuming you can just “logic” your symptoms away.
When your partner tells you about their anxiety, they’re not necessarily asking for practical advice. Sometimes they just need you to listen so they don’t feel like their brain is screaming into the void. In order to work through the distress, they have to get a good look at it first - and maybe they don’t want to do it alone.
The value of vegging out
So here you have it: three suggestions of shows to watch when the snow just won’t let you enjoy all your fun, outdoor plans. Mind you, none of them have mental illness as their primary focus; if you’d like something a bit more centered on the topic of mental health, Netflix is teeming with recent additions. And don’t give yourself a hard time for indulging in these simple pleasures; fiction holds a bigger place in our lives than we think, because nothing has more power to shape our experience than the stories we tell about it.
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