Accurate and Inaccurate Depictions of Mental Illness on Television

22 Feb, 2021

Mental illness is often dramatized on television in order to add action to the plotline of the story. Shows such as the CSI franchise and Criminal Minds often depict so-called “psychopaths” and “sociopaths” in their crime shows, as well as other, more complex depictions of actual mental health disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Every episode of these serials usually takes advantage of society’s assumptions about people with mental illnesses because it is an easy way to capture attention and drive the plot. This article will be observing multiple television shows that offer disjointed depictions of mental healthy scenarios and diagnoses.

Depictions of Mental Health Disorders in Crime Shows

Many shows about investigative pursuits in the realm of the federal government or high-performing academic ventures, such as NCIS, CSI, Law and Order, and Bones, try to tackle issues of mental health. An example of this is the overwhelming amount of mentally ill criminals who appear on the NBC television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The mental illnesses of these fictional criminals are often depicted to be so extreme that the stigma that usually goes along with stories in real life often carry over into the true crime genre.

Instead of depicting the reality of severe mental illness, crime shows in their writing process observe the nature of typical slaughter stories and manifest a fictional take on what the mental illnesses of such twisted individuals might be like. While such creative license often adds to the drama of the show, there are often lines that are crossed in the common television depictions that do a great disservice to those who suffer from mental disorders. There is never any clarification regarding the possible research done on the mental illnesses portrayed in every episode. There is also no disclaimer stating that the depictions of mental health on the show may be subject to interpretation and are not accurate depictions of the lived experiences of people in real life who suffer from some of the same disorders as the fictional criminals on the shows. As such, characters with mental health disorders are often portrayed as dangerous, unstable, and capable of horrific crimes.

Common Examples of Depression on Television

Leaving aside the depictions of severe mental illness found in crime shows, many television shows use depression as a narrative device. This device usually is meant to allow the audience to feel more connected to a certain character, as depression on television is typically devoid of any of the disappointing and sometimes agonizing factors which make it such a horrible disease. Instead of examining ways in which depression can be treated, most television writers make depression out to be some kind of commonly experienced hurdle in one’s personal life that inhibits them from flourishing in the context of the next chapter of the show’s plot. Many characters on famous television shows such as The Sopranos, Parks and Recreation, Bojack Horseman, and House depict various levels of mental health problems experienced by characters. However, the problem is that often depression made out to be seen as a problem that the characters can overcome using elements of their personality to “power through it,” which is actually impossible to do in most cases when it comes to depression.

Positive vs Negative Examples of Mental Health Struggle on TV

One of the most iconic mentally ill protagonists of all time on American television is Tony Soprano, who suffers clinically from depression and borderline personality disorder as he is diagnosed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, on the HBO show, The Sopranos. While this was a significant plot point in the show’s first season, it had its ups and downs in terms of psychological accuracy: Tony was prescribed and took Prozac for his depression, but an entire episode was based on a hallucination he has while on the medication which he was told caused the visions, even though this a very uncommon side effect of Prozac.

Alternatively, the animated Netflix show Bojack Horseman provides one of the best contemporary examples of an accurate depiction of a depression diagnosis. In the final seasons of the show, Diane, one of the protagonists, suffers deeply from depression after moving to a new city. On the show, not only do the writers address Diane’s struggle with depression intimately, but they go over how her life is affected after going on a new antidepressant, which lowers her sex drive and causes her to gain weight. Diane’s experiences with depression are addressed head-on on the show, and it seems that the writers took great care in making sure that her story is told with dignity and respect, even though she is suffering greatly.


From a cynical perspective, one might assume that it is ill-advised to trust any depiction of mental health on television, as the examples given there are usually so untrustworthy and extreme. However, the usual problems that mentally ill fictional characters can experience sometimes provide solidarity and comfort to people looking for ways to seek solace when suffering from a diagnosis. Proceed with caution when watching shows depicting characters with mental illness and be aware that show writers are not psychologists and often undermine or exaggerate mental health disorders in favor of making a show that is exciting to viewers.

Television depictions of mental illness are often so dramatized that most portrayals of mental health disorders should be taken with a large grain of salt. It is almost impossible to interpret any example of mental illness on TV without employing a grain of salt. Characters on crime shows, usually the villains, often suffer from such a broad variety of fictional symptoms to common diagnoses that are either inaccurate or completely made up. While some shows venture to provide accurate depictions of mental health issues, such as depression, many others either make light of the struggles surrounding mental illness or exaggerate the symptoms to create characters that are unstable and a danger to themselves and others.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health disorder or addiction, don’t rely on popular television shows for accurate examples of symptoms or treatment. Rather, contact a medical or mental health professional for help with a diagnosis and proper treatment. Sober Life is a center in San Diego, California that works with you to treat a range of mental health disorders and substance use disorders. For more information about how we can help, call us at (619) 542-9542 today. 

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