To Tackle Tough Topics Like Mental Health, Turn to Comedy

December 1, 2016  |  Television

Laughter is the best medicine for making serious issues more accessible.

Photo Credit: FXX

Mental illness is no laughing matter, but addressing mental health issues through the lens of comedy can motivate people to take them seriously. For advocates working to improve America’s woefully inadequate mental health system, that means more visibility for the issues they’re trying to address.  

Comedy allows audiences to relate to topics that usually cause them discomfort. The spoonful of sugar strategy, if you will. Case in point: The classic Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove used comedy to depict the frightening truth about nuclear war. Another movie made the same year, Fail-Safe, approached exactly the same topic with deadly seriousness. Which movie do you remember?

dr-strangelove

Although using comedy to address mental health issues may be controversial — some argue that it pokes fun at people’s challenges — when it’s done right, it can be a source of empowerment and education. Take The Big Bang Theory’s multi-season arc about Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s (Jim Parsons) undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s syndrome. The show used humor to bring these conditions into the mainstream.

For organizations that want to draw more attention to mental health issues, there are plenty of current TV shows addressing the topic in effective and innovative ways. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

One of our favorite examples is You’re the Worst, which just concluded its third season on FXX. Though it’s hardly romantic for a rom-com, there is much more going on in this smart dark comedy.

youre-the-worst

The show examines mental health challenges of modern relationships, and doesn’t shy away from emotionally damaged characters. Watching Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) protest too much even as they’re falling in love reminds viewers that every relationship is, to some degree, an exercise in working out emotional baggage. But when Gretchen’s struggle with clinical depression is revealed, her mental illness becomes central to the show. It’s a refreshingly honest look at how people with depression manage their illness through steps like medication and therapy (which, as Insecure’s Issa Rae reminds us, is for everyone), and how their loved ones find ways to support them.

You’re the Worst’s creator, Stephen Falk, said in a recent interview that he was happy with the show’s evolution:

“Certainly I had no intention, when I pitched the show, for it to become a show that has, as not the running thing, but a running theme, mental health. But I find myself in that position. And I’m very, very happy about that. Because I think it’s something that is in a big way stigmatized. And I don’t want to be a lesson or a preachy show. But I am very interested in being a show that explores things that aren’t explored that often in popular culture, and certainly not that often in the comedic realm. I very, very much like that.”

Like all successful pop culture/social change mashups, putting storytelling before social message is essential. In season three, You’re the Worst spotlights Edgar (Desmin Borges) and his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As an Iraq War veteran, Edgar must navigate the bureaucratic Veterans Affairs and consider the risks and benefits of treating his PTSD with medical marijuana. Edgar discovers it’s the only thing that soothes his PTSD-related anxiety, a far cry from the pharmaceuticals he ditched because they didn’t help and made his “dick not work.” The storyline provides a powerful pro-legalization narrative.  

YOU'RE THE WORST -- "Twenty-Two" -- Episode 305 (Airs Wednesday, September 28, 10:00 pm e/p -- Pictured: (l-r) Desmin Borges as Edgar Quintero, Collette Wolfe as Dorothy. CR: Byron Cohen/FX.

Also of note, PTSD has become a hot topic in recent TV comedies. In Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) must confront the emotional ramifications of being held hostage in a bunker through her formative years. Even the CW’s Jane the Virgin touched on the issue, when Jane (Gina Rodriguez) faced flashbacks after Michael (Brett Dier) was shot.

kimmying

Another current comedy featuring mental health issues is the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In fact, creator and star Rachel Bloom, who plays Rebecca Bunch, has said that “a lot of Rebecca’s depression, insomnia, and anxiety is based on myself at my worst points throughout my life.” Notable are the show’s frequent song-and-dance numbers, which provide an imaginative, unconventional, yet sympathetic window into her unstable mind.

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Like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Netflix’s Lady Dynamite uses the real-life experience of creator and star Maria Bamford — who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — to both create comedy and raise awareness. Hulu’s Please Like Me is about college student Josh (Josh Thomas), who comes out of the closet while dealing with his bipolar, suicidal mother.

lady-dynamite

Although movies often feature characters dealing with mental health issues — Pixar’s Inside Out comes to mind as a comedy that does it extremely well — there’s something about TV that gives it an edge over movies in empathy-building. We laugh along with the exploits of Rebecca or Gretchen because we let them into our lives week after week, investing in their stories over time. These characters and their stories become part of our lives. Just like in real life, getting to know people who struggle with mental illness is the best way to break down barriers to understanding, whether they are our friends, family or favorite TV characters. Call us crazy, but we think humor will open viewers’ minds to erasing stigma around people with mental health issues — and motivate action from those in a position to make things better for them.

      Amy Lynn Smith for AndACTION