Mental Health Portrayal in TV – How 'Bojack Horseman' Does It Right


Every year in the UK, around 1 in 4 people will face a mental health problem. In the age of social media, awareness of this statistic has grown, with more people sharing their experiences and an increasing number of TV shows daring to tackle mental health issues in their character representation.

As a 21-year-old student constantly thinking about the future, I’ve experienced my share of anxiety and depression. It’s a problem that affects many young people as they move into adulthood, and unfortunately hasn’t been addressed in mainstream media until recently. I find comfort in TV shows that help me escape from everyday life, and since this is a common desire nowadays, it’s important for viewers to have characters they identify with. There have been a considerable lack of shows that depict depression and anxiety accurately, often coming across in a patronising way. The Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, was criticised for ‘romanticising’ the concept of suicide, which could be harmful to those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. This is a shame, since people should feel validated for their feelings, not alienated.

A Netflix show I discovered recently has shown how writers can depict mental health in an honest way whilst also making viewers cry and laugh: the adult cartoon, Bojack Horseman. It’s hard to believe that a comedy with talking animals could convey mental illness so genuinely and it took me completely by surprise.

The story follows a ‘has-been’ actor, Bojack Horseman, who starred in a 90’s sitcom, but since then has dropped off the radar, trying to find meaning in the life he’s been left with. As a result, he deals with loneliness and depression daily, but never talks about it, turning to drugs and alcohol to drown his feelings. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking someone with a celebrity lifestyle would be happy. It grants them money, fame and friends, but in spite of having all this, Bojack feels empty. This is never more plain than in the title sequence as he goes about his day surrounded by parties and media attention, but his eyes have a constant blank expression, like he doesn’t see any of it.  He waves his problems away with dry humour and sarcasm, and many viewers can relate to this. Addressing mental illness but not taking it too seriously is probably what makes the show so appealing.

It’s not just the lead character who stands out. Supporting characters, such as Diane Nguyen, also have their moments. Diane first comes into the show as the ghostwriter of Bojack’s biography, but becomes more prominent as their friendship grows. Again, you’d think Diane would be happy: she’s an intelligent and successful woman, and yet she questions her ‘purpose’ in life, wondering if she can find happiness like ‘those perky well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows’.

I really wanted to discuss this series because it shows how far we’ve come with showcasing mental health in the media. It’s by no means perfect, but shows like Bojack Horseman help people feel validated, no matter what they’re going through. More narratives are trying to discuss the issue, including Lady Dynamite, another Netflix original, and BBC’s Fleabag.

Despite this new awareness, there should be a continuing effort to write about mental health in a way that audiences can truly identify with. It’s encouraging that we are beginning to talk about it properly, and it’s important to continue doing so that young audiences know they are not alone in their struggles. As someone who experiences anxiety regularly, I appreciate it being portrayed realistically, and woven into a story I enjoy with characters I love.

By Abigail Martin