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“13 Reasons Why” And “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: How Two Totally Different TV Shows Are Changing How We Think About Mental Illness

YOU MATTER! Mental illness is a real thing. These shows give us a way to talk about it! (Some spoilers to follow.)

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If you’re a living, breathing human being, chances are you’ve probably heard a lot about Netflix’s new hit show 13 Reasons Why. Based on Jay Asher’s book by the same name (which I totally recommend), it’s about Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide for thirteen reasons, which she explains in thirteen different tapes to thirteen different people. It’s intensely dramatic and can be difficult to watch at times, but that’s only because it’s so well done. Its characters feel like real people with real problems in a real high school.

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You also may have heard about The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, a big time New York lawyer who moves to small-town West Covina, California to reconnect with the love of her life, who she believes will finally make her truly happy. She sings, she dances, and the show is a comedic musical worth watching if you’re one of those people who knows every line of “Defying Gravity” and “Good Morning Baltimore”—or if you’re just interested in watching something that’s smart and funny and deals with real issues.

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You’re probably wondering how these two shows relate. How can one drama and one musical comedy be alike in any way? They sound like they couldn’t be more different, and that’s because it’s true. They are very different. They appeal to different audiences of different age groups on different platforms. But there’s one thing they have in common: both shows portray mental illness, and I don’t mean in that she-got-so-upset-she-sat-on-the-couch-in-sweatpants-eating-chocolate-for-a-day kind of way. They show mental illness truthfully, in all of its realness and complexity. They’re so engaging, and so many people are watching, that they’ve tricked us all into talking about mental illness without even realizing it. For the first time in mainstream media, mental illness isn’t taboo or dangerous, it’s life.

13 Reasons Why uses Hannah Baker to clearly deal with the issues of depression and suicide, but what it’s best at is showing that depression, like many mental illnesses, can be invisible. No one knew Hannah was depressed. No one realized she was serious about wanting to end her life. At times, people thought Hannah may have been going through something, but then she seemed better. She wasn’t. Just as in real life, her depression didn’t miraculously go away. It kept eating at her until she felt she had no other options. There are always options.

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Hannah isn’t the only one struggling, though. Many characters suffer from anxiety, whether related to bullying, or, as in Clay’s case, a past issue treated with therapy and prescription medication. Several characters also experience sexual harassment and/or rape, leading to PTSD that makes the characters act and think differently, even when they don’t want to. For Hannah, this kind of PTSD becomes more prevalent during her times with Clay. Hannah begins to associate Clay’s actions, which she is okay with, with several previous encounters with other people she was not okay with. She is unable to do something she likes because her brain won’t stop bringing her to the things she hates.

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The first episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alone is packed with realistic examples of mental illness. The episode begins ten years before the present, but quickly returns to the now to show an extremely sleep deprived, upset-looking Rebecca Bunch contemplating a butter commercial that asks, “When was the last time you were truly happy?”. A strange commercial, sure, but in that moment it’s clear that Rebecca Bunch is not happy, and she doesn’t know when she last was. The episode quickly moves on to Rebecca at work about to receive a big promotion that leads to an even bigger panic attack, complete with heavy breathing, ears ringing, sweat, tears, and a desire for anything from medication, to spirituality, to ex-boyfriends to fix everything. Later in the episode Rebecca’s mother reveals Rebecca’s previous inconveniencing suicide attempt, opening the doors for viewers to see that this girl has more going on than we might have originally assumed.

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In addition to Rebecca, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend introduces us to other characters with mental illness. While these are generally more subtle, they’re still there ready for viewers to learn more about. One character, Greg Serrano, is a moody bartender who hates everything, but his issues go deeper than boredom and disinterest. Greg isn’t plain moody. Just like Rebecca, he suffers from depression, which he couples with alcoholism to help him try to forget his pain. His problems go largely unnoticed by the other characters until he finds himself in such a low position that he is forced to seek help.

Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and so many other diseases are very real parts of many people’s lives. 13 Reasons Why and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend give those people affected by mental illness a chance to see themselves in the shows they’re actually watching, and have the opportunity to use these shows to talk about what they’re going through. I’m not saying any of the characters in either show portray THE perfect example of mental illness. There are many different kinds of mental illnesses and many different ways for those illnesses to affect a person’s life. However, these shows are really good at showing how one person’s feelings can and will affect the people around him or her. They show how actions have consequences and something you do to your friends, your enemies, and your nobodies can change how someone thinks, acts, and feels. You don’t just see the person who is directly affected by the mental illness; you see how everyone else is, too. And, if you’re paying close attention, you just may find that the person you thought had all the problems isn’t alone. Not even close.

People are afraid to talk about things they don’t understand. People don’t understand mental illness. And if we can’t talk about it, if we can’t make it a part of the public conversation, we may never understand it. That’s why 13 Reasons Why and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are so important. They are taking away the hushed tones associated with mental illness and shouting about it through our televisions and tablets, our cellphones and laptops. They’re normalizing it just enough to make us talk about it. And now that we’ve started, we’re not stopping. So bring it on, Netflix and The CW. Show us what you can do. We want more.

If you or someone you know is contemplating self-injury or suicide, please visit or and know the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is always available and free to call. 1-800-273-8255. You matter.

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