TV Depictions of Mental Illness Are on the Rise. HBO Wants to Give Context

The network is partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Health on a new initiative that includes pre-show awareness "bumpers."
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo courtesy of HBO

I don’t know any teens, so I have not been able to confirm or deny how realistic Euphoria’s depiction of the zoomer/zennial (sorry) High School Experience is, although I have my suspicions that showrunners may have inflated the amount of editorial-level eye makeup being worn on and around high school campuses. But one element of the show that really, as the kids say, “hits different” is its (relatively) true-to-life portrayals of what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues like addiction, depression, and emotional abuse. Now, HBO is doubling down on its commitment to raising awareness of mental illness through a partnership with the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI) that will include adding mental health “bumpers” in front of select programs and releasing videos that unpack the depiction of specific mental illnesses within some of its beloved TV universes.


Euphoria, Girls, Barry and The Sopranos will be among the shows featured in the initiative, according to Variety. “HBO has always been at the forefront of telling stories featuring complex characters, some of whom deal with mental illness, from The Sopranos to Euphoria, encouraging more conversation around the different facets of mental health,” Jason Mulderig, vice president of brand and product marketing at HBO, told Variety. “We are not saying ‘viewer discretion is advised.’ We are saying ‘viewer conversation is encouraged.’”

“Viewer conversation is encouraged” is a deeply corny turn of phrase, but the choice to identify and contextualize specific mental illnesses does go above and beyond the standard trigger warning, which feels like a gesture in the right direction. It could be genuinely helpful, either for educational purposes or just because it’s nice to feel seen by the things you consume. It wasn’t that long ago that, if mental illness was represented at all on TV, it was as a mysterious, antagonizing force or a punchline, like Monk’s depiction of OCD; as a catch-all excuse for being a bad person on shows like House; or whatever Criminal Minds has had going on for the past…14 years.

But since we’re living in a world where 13 Reasons Why, a show that has been criticized for its graphic and potentially triggering depiction of teen suicide, gets to have a four-season run, it’s pretty clear we haven’t quite nailed the nuanced, empathetic, three-dimensional portrayal of mental illness yet. Hopefully HBO’s new formats and contextualizations can pioneer humane representation for people living with mental health issues the same way it pioneered saying “fuck” on television.

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