In recent years, mental illness is becoming much less of a taboo subject and as a result is being finally represented more accurately in the media. At one point the only representation we would see of a mentally ill character was the ‘crazy’ man in a soap opera who would show up, stalk and/or kill a character we all loved and then get dragged away kicking and screaming into a white van never to be seen again. Thankfully things have moved on and I don’t think I’m the only person to notice a massive shift in the way mental health is approached on tv. Although I don’t think the media will ever treat all conditions equally, the representations we see now seem to be more positive and educating than stigmatising.
One of the first times this really stood out to me in the last couple of years was when I watched the 2018 tv series In My Skin, a comedy drama about a 16 year old girl Bethan who is experiencing the struggles of growing up, exploring her sexuality and living with a cruel alcoholic father. Alongside all this she is hiding the fact that her mother is in a psychiatric hospital with bipolar disorder. Bethan holds most of the weight of the burden on her own, with only a couple of adults attempting to help her as she tries to survive in a homophobic school filled with bullies. The writer Kayleigh Llewellyn created the series based on her own childhood, saying that she spent most of her childhood living in fear of her friends finding out about her mothers bipolar. She expressed regret about the shame she felt, saying that she didn’t know any better as a teenager.
It wasn’t until I really sat and thought about it that I realised how many times I’ve seen mental illness represented in British tv, sometimes letting it pass me by even in shows I’d watched countless times.
The main example that I can think of being Peep Show. In series 3 episode 2 ‘Sectioning’, Mark and Jez reconnect with an old friend Merry who they describe as ‘kooky’. Later in the episode it becomes apparent that Merry is manic and seemingly suffering from Psychosis when she displays behaviours like requesting for her guests to “shit in the bin”, using Mark’s razor and shaving cream on her face for a ‘very important meeting’ and giving her pub to Jez and Super-Hans. The episode ends with Merry being sectioned in a psychiatric unit and the other characters attempting to section each other after they see how easy it is to do.
I personally find it quite refreshing to see issues that would otherwise be quite bleak and depressing represented in a comical way. Laughing at something that, if shown in a different setting might make us cry, can feel bizarre and almost wrong; but I think it feels healthy to bring joy to ourselves where we should be feeling something less happy. Other examples of this that come to mind are Rae in My Mad Fat Diary who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and is settling back into her old lifestyle, Jim in Friday Night Dinner who appears to have autism and some childhood trauma, and Tony in After Life who suffers from depression and suicidal thoughts after the death of his wife.
I understand that not everyone appreciates mental illness and learning disabilities being portrayed in a comical way. I remember the offence that was taken to the character Anne in Little Britain, even though the joke was that she didn’t really have a learning disability and would slip back into her regular voice as soon as no one was paying attention. In recent years we saw some controversy with the Ricky Gervais show Derek, a tv show about a man who works in a nursing home. Derek, played by Gervais, shows signs of having autism or some form of learning disability although this has been strongly denied by Gervais, who compares Derek to Mr Bean. The way Gervais plays the character of Derek, standing hunched over with a shuffling walk, his mouth hanging open and a lack of social skills would heavily imply that he is acting the part of a man with some form of LD. When questioned about this, Gervais responds saying “Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong.”
Even with this view point explained, people found the character portrayal offensive, especially considering Gervais’ controversial past regarding the use of offensive words, but I myself see it entirely the opposite way. Watching the show and seeing the sweet, caring and sympathetic man that Derek was, I thought it distasteful that Gervais refused to acknowledge that the character was disabled. This would have been a wonderful way to show autism and/or learning disabilities in a heartwarming light and that chance was denied when to me, it seemed apparent that the intention of Gervais was clear all along.
I know how intimidating it can be to discuss mental illness in any setting. I myself have always used comedy as a way of talking about problems and expressing my feelings towards things that would otherwise be quite difficult to talk about. This form of coping mechanism is very common in comedians, noteably people like Spike Milligan, Stephen Fry and Russell Brand. British comedy has always been great at taking something bleak and flipping it around to make it funny and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so wonderful. If we can watch tv and relate to something a character is going through whilst laughing along to something that otherwise could send us into floods of tears, I think we’re winning.