My own experiences with mental illness have been complicated, and for many years I suffered in silence. But, in my experience, the road to so-called "recovery" and wellness is easier when you have people to connect to. Sometimes that source of connection can be fictional characters on TV. Thankfully, narratives about motherhood and mental illness are finally starting to change, and some of those narratives are being reflected in television shows.
Realistic portrayals of moms attending therapy sessions, as well as fictional moms being transparent and honest about their struggles with themselves and their families, are becoming the norm. These moments on screen serve as the perfect points of departure for conversations about treatment, managing symptoms, and overcoming stigmas related to mental illness.
Off screen, and in real life, there is more awareness about mental health issues as they relate to motherhood; an important pivot in how we consume media, because too many moms aren't receiving the help they need. The importance of including story lines about moms coping with mental illness with honesty, and support from their families, help to normalize conversations about mental health and allow viewers to learn more about how they can help the moms in their life.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, it includes some contemporary TV moms who cope with mental health issues on screen:
1. Penelope From 'One Day At A Time'
Penelope Francisca del Carmen Riera Inclán Ruiz Maribona de Alvarez, Army vet and mother of Elena and Alex, struggles with depression and anxiety in silence until she realizes that her journey can help her daughter learn how to cope, too.
When Penelope understands that she can use her own struggles as a teaching moments for Elena, she develops a new perspective regarding mental health. As the daughter of someone who strives to always appear strong and regularly perpetuates dangerous stigmas about mental illness, Penelope actively works to break generational cycles of trauma by teaching her children that it’s healthy to take care of yourself.
Part of taking care of yourself, she teaches them, is being mindful of how mental health issues can impact your daily life. Outside of the home, her experiences in group therapy help to normalize seeking professional help for mental illnesses. She also raises awareness about the need for culturally-competent mental health services for veterans and the LGBTQIA+ community.
2. Rainbow From 'Blackish'
Rainbow Johnson offers viewers more than just hair and style goals. She also offers viewers a relatable portrayal of what it's like to struggle with postpartum depression.
When Rainbow starts to experience symptoms related to a postpartum mood disorder, we learn about how the Johnson family reacts and navigates their relationships with her. She expresses feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and struggles to feel supported by her mother-in-law.
“I've had four kids, and somehow, I am struggling right now. I cannot seem to make enough milk. I feel filled with anxiety. I feel weak. I feel embarrassed because of all the things that I can't do. And you are making me feel so much worse,” she finally admits when her mother-in-law continues to ignore Rainbow’s need for support and understanding.
She offers a heartbreaking and way too relatable portrayal of what it’s like to struggle with adjusting to postpartum life. She also reminds us all that it doesn’t matter how many children you’ve had, because each new postpartum experience can lead to new feelings and emotions never before felt.
3. Christy & Bonnie From 'Mom'
Christy and Bonnie give us dark comedy realness and an honest look into what it’s like to cope with alcoholism and recovery. They explore issues like reconnecting with toxic parents, navigating unhealthy relationships, dealing with the threat of relapse, the importance of friendship, and the pain of acknowledging the times we weren’t the best parent we could have been.
If you’ve seen the show Mom, you know that they tackle a variety of issues, but my favorite thing about Christy and Bonnie’s relationship is how open, honest, and real they are about how hard it is to cope with addiction. Since the mom and daughter duo are both recovering alcoholics, they can bond over their triumphs and moments of weakness while also unpacking the problem areas of their relationship. They’re incredibly close, but they're also still figuring out how to be the best versions of themselves while mending broken parts of their relationship. Sometimes it seems like an impossible task, but, together, and with the help of their Alcoholics Anonymous group, they show viewers the benefits of sobriety and healing.
4. Miranda From 'Grey’s Anatomy'
While Bailey’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) helped raise awareness about the disorder and offered viewers more insight into her character, her experiences also shed light on an issue plaguing many communities: not taking women seriously when they express health concerns.
“My name is Miranda Bailey. I am Chief of Surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial, and I believe that I am having a heart attack,” she informs medical staff at Seattle Presbyterian Hospital. She also discusses data related to women, particularly Black women, and the lack of diagnosis of serious medical issues due to racism, sexism, and implicit biases.
Bailey was able to fight for herself and use her credentials to be somewhat taken seriously, but her experiences still raised awareness about the need to believe women when they say that something is wrong. The fact that she advocated for herself is important, because a few seasons before, when her struggles with OCD started to impact her work, she was afraid to admit she was struggling. (She refused to take medication recommended to her by a psychiatrist.) Viewers watch her growth and self-acceptance in subtle ways between the OCD and heart attack story arcs and see how difficult it can be to navigate mental illness at work, seek help, and advocate for oneself.
5. Skyler From 'Breaking Bad'
Whether you love her or hate her, one thing is for certain: Skyler's life was incredibly difficult to navigate. She is, to me, such a tragic character. She really makes viewers think about what “choice” really means, and forces us all to question what it would mean for her to do the “right” thing.
Every time Skyler speaks with her therapist, it becomes more and more clear how traumatized, confused, and guilty she feels about the situation she’s in. Even though she has agency, and isn’t being forced to stay in her toxic marriage, there are so many circumstances that make all of her choices difficult and bound by other people’s actions. Walt’s choices directly impact her and their children and often put them all in danger. Skyler addresses her fears about Walt’s choices while also opening up about how complicated her life has become. She wrestles with so many dilemmas and tries to prioritize her children’s safety but is often left picking up the pieces of Walt’s mistakes. She shows viewers what it means to be perpetually between a rock and a hard place. She also reveals how difficult it is to navigate a failing marriage as a mom who just wants her kids to be safe.
6. Bette & Tina From 'The L Word'
Mama B and Mama T had, arguably, the most complicated and toxic relationship on the show. Be that as it may, they both put in work to to try and keep their relationship healthy. It was definitely a struggle, though, and sometimes they’d turn, at first, to Dan Foxworthy, the show’s celebrity therapist, and later a group therapy program, for help. They talked about issues related to fidelity, finances, race, and navigating family relationships as a lesbian couple.
As a young, queer kid, I remember sneaking around to watch The L Word late at night when everyone else was asleep. While the show has countless flaws and is problematic is many ways, it taught me that therapy was healthy during a time in my life when the people closest to me saw wanting therapy as a moral failure. Bette and Tina showed me that everyone can benefit from therapy, including wealthy people and even people surrounded by friends who love them... like Bette and Tina.
7. Literally Every Mom In 'Game Of Thrones'
The moms of Game of Thrones honestly each deserve their own essay, and I know that countless of them have been written already.
Upon reflection, months after the show's ending, I’m really fascinated by how much of the series was dependent on the actions, beliefs, and ideas of mothers. Every major plot twist or drastic change in the narrative was, in some way, impacted by a choice, or multiple choices, made by one of the show’s moms.
Further, those actions, beliefs, ideas, and choices were all informed by their roles and identities as mothers. Whether they’re coping with pregnancy loss, their children’s senescence, or concerns about future offspring, Game of Thrones matriarchs openly discuss their worries and fears., mostly to other mothers or women. Despite the show’s fantasy elements, the depictions of mental health concerns, though obviously described with other language, are addressed with clarity, detail, and honesty.
8. Jen Harding From 'Dead To Me'
I finished watching Dead To Me in record time, because it was so well-written and dealt with issues related to grief and coping with death in a way that was refreshing and original. I also appreciated the protagonists’ raw and honest conversations about pregnancy loss.
I especially loved Christina Applegate’s performance of Jen Harding, the grieving widow who joins a group therapy session after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband. While investigating his death, she participates in multiple group therapy sessions and even attends a retreat led by the therapist who runs the group sessions.
Throughout the show, viewers watch Jen cope with the loss of her husband while navigating relationships with her children and some new friends. Her non-linear journey through the five stages of grief is coupled with dark humor and heartbreaking moments of clarity that left so many of us eager for the next season.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.