Indonesians Have a Lot to Learn About Mental Illness From 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'
The series' third season shows how to break through the stigma of mental illness.
Illustration by Dini Lestari
Rebecca Bunch is, hand's down, the best character on TV right now. Why? Because she is such a mess. She's the main character of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a US TV series about, you guessed it, a crazy ex-girlfriend. But it's the series ability to use laugh-out-loud humor and character-drive drama to really capture what it's like to live with mental illness that makes it so good. Whenever I'm watching Rebecca and crew I can't help but wonder if more Indonesians wouldn't be forced to hide their mental health problems if everyone watched the series.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend centers Rebecca's desperate attempts to win her first love back. She is a successful Ivy League-educated lawyer living in Manhattan. But when she bumps into Josh Chan, her first love from back when she was a teenager, she takes it as a sign that she should drop everything and move to West Covina, California to be with him. Of course, nothing goes as planned and by the show's third season, Rebecca is forced to face her mental health problems.
The show works best when it's depicting each character’s thoughts by giving them musical numbers—which, if incorporated in the narrative with less skill, could've resulted in a dud (anybody remember Glee?). But here, the songs are one of the show’s most-charming elements. Even Tony Award-winning actress Patti LuPone thinks so. Rachel Bloom, who plays Rebecca and is also the show's co-creator, explained that, for her, the songs are not just amazing joke-delivery devices, but they also work to deliver ideas— ideas that don't emotionally work as well if you just talk about it.
The grand shift toward being open about Rebecca’s mental health issues has brought out some of the best-reviewed episodes since its pilot premiered in 2015. Vanity Fair called its third and latest season its strongest yet, while Metro wrote about how this might be the best show depicting mental illness on television right now. In the show, Rebecca breaks into a song called “A Diagnosis,” a refreshingly smart take on her path of acceptance in knowing who she is beyond her illness. Bloom and composer Adam Schlesinger make sure that this song tackles and subverts the stigmatization of mental illness.
When the diagnosis eventually becomes clear and we all learn that Rebecca has borderline personality disorder (BPD), she looks up the diagnosis online—even though her psychiatrist specifically asked her not to—and freaks herself out. Anyone who's been diagnosed with mental illness knows exactly how that feels. The internet is often our first step in an eventual self-diagnosis before we seek help, because who has the time to call a shrink to have deep conversations about depression?
And in Indonesia, some of us just can't muster the courage to go against the stigma. I mean, this is a country that chains thousands of people with mental illness in institutions or backyard shacks. People in the US talk about the stigma of mental illness, but at least no one is trying to put you in shackles.
In 2014, Indonesia's House of Representatives passed a law requiring better treatment for people with mental health issues. Even though they deserve applause for this, Indonesia still has a long way to go before it obliterates the stigma around mental illness. A law means nothing if a society, as a whole, still casually dismisses depression and anxiety—to give two examples—as something that can be easily cured (usually by praying to God). This is a huge part of the reason why people don't get the help they need.
But we also still live in a society where people backing out of suicide attempts are mocked online for being a "pussy". When you're brave enough to reach out to people close to you about your mental illness, you still need to prepare for the worst. Some people here shame you for having anxiety attacks, telling you to "calm yourself down" as if it was really that easy. In my own experience, I've had people tell me my nervous breakdowns were because demons had infiltrated my body, and that an exorcism was the only answer.
Meanwhile, in the show, some of Rebecca’s friends do enable her irrational behavior, but they are only doing so because Rebecca herself will not admit her illness at first. By lying to herself, she learns how to lie to other people as well. In this season, all her friends finally discover who she really is, and what she has done in the past. And even then, they still give up everything and help Rebecca on her journey to a healthier path. It shows how important it is to have a support system you can trust, above everything else.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has managed to take on horrifyingly realistic takes on suicidal thoughts and mental health in a weirdly radiant way. Watching Rebecca finally allow herself to come into the realization of who she really is, flaws and all, is indeed cathartic to say the least. Sure, it may be gloomy at first, but it's eventually truly liberating to know your own diagnosis because it means you also know the right treatment needed for you to better yourself.
I fully believe in rigorous education of mental health has to be implemented everyday life. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one way to do it. It's such a Millennial thing to say, but I found myself in a TV show. This show, in some ways, saved me.