2 Netflix Series That Are Praised For Their Mental Health Representation

These two shows may be very different, but they both do a great job at depicting two very common mental health issues.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 30, 2024

Depression and addiction are quintessential mental health problems that are faced by millions of people around the globe. Despite their prevalence, however, popular culture and media often struggle to depict these issues realistically—either sensationalizing them for shock or entertainment value, or minimizing their complexity for the sake of an easier, more digestible storyline.

These kinds of lackadaisical representations can be incredibly frustrating. However, two Netflix series—which are, ironically, wildly different from one another—break this mold to represent these problems in two gritty, refreshing, and genuine ways. Here's why they have both garnered acclaim from psychologists for their genuine and tactful portrayals of mental health struggles.

1. BoJack Horseman (2014–2020)

BoJack Horseman is a dark comedy animated series that follows the life of a washed-up sitcom star from the 90s, struggling to find purpose in a world that has moved on without him. Set in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals coexist, the show delves into BoJack's battles with depression, addiction and the consequences of his self-destructive behavior. Through its six seasons, the series unflinchingly portrays the highs and lows of BoJack's attempts to find happiness and meaning.

Comedies and animations often trivialize or make light of depression and addiction, using these issues as mere plot devices for humor or simplifying them to avoid unsettling the audience. Characters with these struggles are frequently portrayed in a one-dimensional manner, reducing their complexities to a series of jokes or oversimplified story arcs. This approach can make the depiction of mental health seem superficial and detached from the harsh realities faced by those who suffer from these conditions, ultimately reinforcing harmful stereotypes and undermining the seriousness of these issues.

Contrary to these trivialized portrayals, actual research on depression and addiction highlights how tightly linked they often are, as well as how those afflicted by both experience an incredibly impoverished quality of life. Depression can manifest as a persistent, debilitating condition that affects every aspect of a person's life, while addiction can lead to a cycle of self-destruction that is difficult to break. Simplifying these experiences does a disservice to viewers, especially those who are personally affected by them, as it fails to accurately represent the profound impact these conditions have on individuals' careers, relationships and well-being.

BoJack Horseman successfully subverts stereotypical portrayals of mental health issues by offering a humorous yet honest depiction of the up-and-down nature of depression and addiction. The show's creators embrace the messiness and discomfort that come with these struggles, presenting a protagonist who is deeply flawed yet undeniably human. BoJack's journey is filled with moments of self-awareness and regression, reflecting the non-linear path that many people with mental health issues experience.

Researchers praise the series for its authentic representation, noting that "BoJack enables the audiences to discover a very confessional memoir of the battles of mental health, and this psychiatric familiarization sets the show apart from others' portrayal of the introductory issues."

BoJack—an alcoholic with wounded masculinity who struggles at times with pride, narcissism and toxicity—is portrayed with a depth that avoids hasty generalizations. The show does not aim to identify a single cause for the trauma suffered by its characters, recognizing that such a depiction would be negligent and counterproductive to raising awareness and destigmatizing mental illness. Instead, BoJack Horseman offers a multifaceted and empathetic portrayal that resonates with all who watch.

2. The Queen's Gambit (2020)

The Queen's Gambit centers around Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who rises to prominence in the male-dominated world of competitive chess during the 1960s. Alongside her quest for chess mastery, Beth grapples with profound personal demons, including a dependency on tranquilizers and alcohol, stemming from her traumatic childhood and the pressures of her talent. The series meticulously portrays her journey through addiction, as well as the isolating effects of her genius.

Dramas often sensationalize depression and addiction in high achievers to create more compelling narratives. They frequently emphasize sexual, violent or shocking aspects to enhance the plot and theatrics, and often simplify the recovery process to show how genius ultimately triumphs. This approach can result in a distorted portrayal that overlooks the complexity and ongoing struggle inherent in these issues—reducing them to dramatic plot points rather than genuine, lived experiences.

Psychological research highlights that depression and addiction in high achievers are significant and pervasive issues. Research indicates that drug abuse and depression are rife among high achieving and gifted youth—with up to 23% meeting diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or dependence. In reality, these psychological conditions are seldom as tidy, sexy or entertaining as media representations suggest; instead, they're often lifelong battles that are inconsistent, messy and profoundly lonely. High achievers may face immense pressure and isolation, which can exacerbate their battles with mental health and substance use.

The Queen's Gambit successfully subverts these stereotypical portrayals with its gritty depiction of how isolating and relentless these struggles can be for high achievers. The series provides a transparent view of Beth's addiction, illustrating how her downward-spirals are consistently triggered by her unresolved trauma.

Research from The British Journal of Psychiatry notes that, "Although some have argued that the depiction of Beth's recovery from addiction is unrealistic, these criticisms fail to acknowledge the detailed presentation of the factors that lead to Beth's substance use and subsequent sobriety." Rather than sensationalizing or trivializing her struggles, the series intricately shows how Beth's substance use is consistently triggered by shame, anxiety and isolation—carefully detailing the factors contributing to her addiction and subsequent sobriety.

According to the authors, this depiction aligns with real-life patterns—where resolving underlying issues is the most integral part of recovering from addiction. This long-winded, hard-to-watch yet truthful portrayal of trauma and addiction makes The Queen's Gambit a significant cultural artifact in understanding and discussing mental health.

Do you consume psychologically sensationalized content often? Take the Psychological Misconception Questionnaire to know why.

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