In Between All Those Antidepressant Ads, Hollywood Gets Real About Depression

‘You’re the Worst’ and ‘I Smile Back’ are bringing forthright depictions of the mood disorder to screens this fall.
'I Smile Back' (left) and 'You’re the Worst.' (Photos: YouTube)
Oct 26, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

It may seem like we see clinical depression on television all the time because commercials for pharmaceuticals to treat it are ubiquitous. In those ads, women—it’s nearly always women—are stalked by a black cloud or a sad, overwhelming bathrobe, or they longingly stare out windows at activities they used to enjoy.

Outside of such clips, the struggles of the estimated 16 million American adults with depression are largely invisible on-screen. But this fall, two candid depictions—one on television and one in a feature film—are turning the spotlight on what it’s like to live with the mood disorder.

RELATED: America Is Trying to Fix a Mental Health Crisis That It Created

That honest representation is what made last week’s episode of You’re the Worst so special. The FXX Network show stars Aya Cash and Chris Geere as two self-absorbed, closed-off Los Angeles residents who, despite their distaste for romance and commitment, have discovered they’re perfect for each other. This season (YTW’s second), the couple, who began as a one-night stand, have found themselves living together in a monogamous, mature relationship. (One excellent episode found them fighting against their newfound intimacy, afraid they’re becoming boring “sweater people,” by forcing themselves to reenact old wild behavior they no longer enjoy.)

But despite their growing closeness, Cash’s character, Gretchen, has been sneaking out at night. Is she cheating? Is she keeping an apartment of her own? Is something broken in her relationship with Geere’s character, Jimmy? No, she simply goes to her car to cry, because, as it was finally revealed after several mysterious episodes, she’s clinically depressed.

“I think depression is something that is, particularly in the creative community, something that is so rampant and yet so misunderstood,” You’re the Worst showrunner Stephen Falk told Flavorwire. “We thought it would be a giant bomb to drop on these characters. Once they get over what you think will be their challenges, that they were now gonna be scot-free, and we’re basically saying that it’s not how life works.”

At first Gretchen didn’t want to expose her depression to Jimmy, illustrating just how stigmatizing the disease can be, as she has been totally open with him about even her ugliest traits. (She told him on their first night together that she burned down her high school to get out of taking a test.) When her best friend, Lindsay, recognizes that she’s having another episode and encourages her to be honest with her boyfriend, Gretchen’s response is the very relatable “I can’t tell him my brain is broken.”

When she finally does admit her depression to Jimmy, the publicist by trade quickly and casually explains to him that it’s something he can’t try to fix—a much better depiction of the disease than those abolished-by-a-pill cartoon rain clouds. For his part, Jimmy does think he can fix it, as many partners of the depressed hope to do, and so we see a hint of where the show’s conflict is heading.

Gretchen’s big reveal is likely only one small part of a much larger story about her depression and how it will affect her new relationship. Now that the audience knows her secret, we can follow the bread crumbs backward and notice that there were clues being sprinkled into the show all along: She drinks and drugs excessively, just like the 20 percent of Americans with a mood disorder who also have substance abuse problem. Gretchen has also lost touch with old friends and is checked out at work. It turns out that depression is the leading cause of disability for U.S. adults ages 15 to 44.

Giving Gretchen clinical depression was probably in the works from YTW's start and has been well plotted out—which is unsurprising, given that the darkly comedic program has treated Jimmy’s roommate’s post-traumatic stress disorder with equal respect. (The roommate, Edgar, served two tours in Iraq and was previously homeless.)

And on the big screen this fall, I Smile Back, based on Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel of the same name, stars comedian Sarah Silverman playing against type as a suburban soccer mom who is self-medicating her depression with cocaine, booze, and extramarital sex. Not only does the indie film shine a spotlight on mental health issues, but the press tour Silverman has done to drum up support for it has consisted of a lot of honest talk about her own real-life struggles and has been especially powerful.

Silverman told The Boston Globe and Vogue how Koppelman decided she wanted the comedian to play the film’s protagonist after hearing Silverman frankly discuss her own depression on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show. Silverman continued that forthright confessional on a recent episode of Fresh Air, putting into words, for those who’ve never been depressed or who think it’s tantamount to simple sadness, what it really feels like. When she gets depressed, as she first did at age 13, it comes on like the flu, suddenly and all at once, she told the show’s host, Terry Gross. “It feels like I’m terribly homesick, but I’m home. There’s no way to satiate it,” Silverman said.

Such high-profile visibility for—and clear-eyed conversation about—depression in pop culture may help sufferers feel less alone (another common symptom) and can hopefully work to lift some of the stigma associated with having a mood disorder. After all, if one in 10 Americans are taking antidepressants and one in eight adolescents are affected, depression is not a rarity.