Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is Tackling the Stigma that Surrounds Anti-Depressants

Still from the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

This article contains spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Like many people, I was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and prescribed with anti-depressants while I was still in the process of growing up. For me, as with a lot of young people battling mental illness, TV and film were forms of escapism – but unfortunately, I grew up at a time where the only mainstream depictions of mental health were inaccurate at best, and downright offensive at worst. From Sherlock to The Big Bang Theory to Pretty Little Liars, I was flooded with poor mental health representation at a time when I needed good representation the most.

When Crazy Ex-Girlfriend aired for the first time and my flatmate excitedly encouraged me to watch with him, I didn’t expect much. I viewed with caution. But that wariness quickly transformed into the unfamiliar feeling of relatability and comfort. I was being understood, on TV, without romanticisation, for the very first time.

Now in its fourth season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has received wild praise for its daring and honest accounts of mental health, particularly for showing the complexities of mental health problems, portrayed with such a level of reality, sugar-coating the intensity with over-the-top musical numbers and dark humour. But rather than just scratching the surface then heading for cancellation like the shows preceding it, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend delves into the small, specific and significant issues that mental illness can bring, such as the shame that surrounds medication.

In the most recent episode titled ‘I Have to Get Out’, Rebecca (who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder after a suicide attempt) is being encouraged by her psychiatrist – Dr Akopian – to try anti-depressants to help her cope with stress and low moods. Rebecca shares the thoughts surrounding anti-depressants that she’s struggling with:

“I’ve always been afraid of going on anti-depressants. It kind of feels like a cop-out to me. I should have been able to toughen up and figure it out on my own. I feel a little ashamed.”

Rebecca’s concerns are not uncommon. When I was prescribed with anti-depressants, my doctor had recommended them because I couldn’t sleep, and I was living in a shared house at the time. I walked home with the prescription bag leaning on my thigh, and it felt like a tumour, like I was carrying a huge weight. I felt like I’d been given a ‘cheat pill’ for people who couldn’t fix their brains on their own. I was so ashamed, that when one of my housemates had asked me how the appointment went, I told him I’d been given antibiotics. Why was I ashamed of taking anti-depressants when they’re as common as any other medication?

According to The Guardian, one in seven people in the UK are taking anti-depressants, with four million people in England being long-term users. And yet, when I was taking them only three years ago, I remember my shame being reinforced by an abundance of negative memes and misleading articles about anti-depressants.

In the episode, Dr Akopian tells Rebecca to interrogate her feelings of shame, as so many more people are on anti-depressants than she thinks, stating ‘pretty much everyone’s on them’. In response to Rebecca’s clear embarrassment and upset, she delivers a song and dance number parodying La La Land, entitled “Anti-Depressants are So Not a Big Deal”.

In a vibrantly colourful routine, Dr Akopian and an array of other psychiatric patients sing:

“Honey, you’re not special ‘cause you’re sad. The butcher, the baker, the grocery clerk. They’re all on twenty milligrams or so. Anti-depressants are so not a big deal.”

Crying with relief as each patient tap-dances around her and reveals their story of why they’re on anti-depressants, Rebecca realises she shouldn’t feel ashamed of seeking help, singing “Why should I feel crappy about something that makes me happy?”

There’s nothing shameful about taking antidepressants. Although that should be clear in 2019, the shame stigma surrounding mental illness still makes the diagnosis and prescription of medication for anxiety, depression or any sort of mental health issue stressful for a lot of people. I feel that if I’d had access to a series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to immerse myself in when my mental health journey began, it would have been easier to process. I’d have accessed relatability, representation and understanding – encapsulated in entertainment.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been remarkably intelligent for four seasons about how it handles complex characters with mental illness using deadpan dialogue and dark humour. Its creators have discussed publicly how they engage in study sessions, reading books on borderline personality disorder and ensuring they represent how recovery is not a swift process. I’m hopeful that this series will not only continue to depict mental illness authentically but will set new boundaries and revolutionise how mental health is represented across the media.  

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