Every culture in the world has some form of art to share. People seem hard-wired to share their experiences, joys, and sorrows through art. In modern life, TV and movies are a huge source of artistic expression, connecting people and helping them through the struggles we all face.
But when it comes to depression, a condition that is experienced by millions of people, TV and movies don’t always manage to give an accurate picture of what it looks like. Characters are usually shown looking sad and pensive, staring out a window as a single tear trickles down their cheek.
But in real life, depression doesn’t always look like calm sadness. The symptoms can be much different than people expect, making it tricky to diagnose – especially when entertainment feeds the misconception that depression is nothing more than a bigger kind of sadness.
However, not all movies and TV shows miss the boat. In fact, some of them do a remarkable job of showing what it’s really like, proving again that art helps us express the reality of the human experience.
What does depression really look like?
What is depression? Although depression is common, every person’s experience of it is unique. However, there are symptoms that professionals look for when diagnosing it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to be diagnosed with depression, someone has to experience low mood and at least some of the following symptoms for more than two weeks.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
People don’t usually experience all of these symptoms at the same time, making it even more tricky to recognize. But some movies and TV shows manage to show a very accurate picture nonetheless.
1. The Skeleton Twins
This 2014 movie tells the story of twins Milo (played by Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), who have been estranged for years. Maggie is contemplating suicide when her plans are interrupted by the news that Milo has attempted to take his life.
The twins reconnect and struggle to support each other as they each grapple with their own depression. The movie shows how difficult it is for them to enjoy their lives and find purpose. Rather than just depicting them as sad, it shows them making impulsive, destructive choices as they try to find their way.
2. Inside Out
This children's animated movie manages to deal with some weighty issues in a child-appropriate way. It shows the inner life of a girl named Riley. Her emotions are depicted as characters that live inside her head. As she deals with the grief of moving away from the home and friends she loves, she becomes overwhelmed by negative emotions, and Sadness loses control. Riley finds herself being overcome by Anger at times, and she feels like she's lost control.
Eventually, she gets her parents' support by sharing with them what she's struggling with, and she comes to terms with the fact that Joy and Sadness sometimes work together.
This 2014 movie starring Jennifer Aniston was almost too accurate for viewers to watch. It follows Claire Simmons, a woman who is dealing with chronic pain from a car accident that also killed her son. Loss, trauma, and chronic pain are all risk factors for depression, and Claire suffers from it in ways that are hard to see.
She's impulsive, angry, and unkind. Her behaviour is so unpleasant that she's even kicked out of a support group. People had a hard time with Cake. But the reality is that depression often manifests in ways that are very hard on relationships.
4. Little Miss Sunshine
This movie came out in 2006, and it's often remembered for its comedy, but it also provides a glimpse into how depression in one family member affects the lives of everyone else. In the movie, the Hoover family goes on a road trip to take young Olivia (Abigail Breslin) to California to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine Contest.
The family experiences conflict along the way, but one person, in particular, is struggling. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is clearly battling depression. He recently attempted suicide after a painful end to a relationship. Over time, it becomes clear that he has been depressed for a long time, and that the relationship was an attempt to cover up his symptoms.
The reality is that depression doesn't always have a clear cause, and it can damage relationships.
5. Bojack Horseman
This is another cartoon, but this Netflix series is aimed at adults. It's about a washed-up TV star who happens to be a human-like horse. He's trying to get his life together, but he's depressed and an alcoholic. Viewers are able to hear what he's thinking sometimes, revealing his sadness and self-loathing.
The show is a good example of how substance-use disorder and depression often occur together. It also shows a realistic picture of antidepressant use.
6. After Life
This British comedy/drama series on Netflix debuted in 2019, and it shows the life of Tony (Ricky Gervais) after the death of his wife. Tony responds to his loss by jettisoning his "nice guy" persona and becoming honest to the point of cruelty. The people close to him try to make him change back into the person they knew.
Depression and grief can cause people to behave in uncharacteristic ways, which can cause problems in relationships. After Life also features something that is rarely explored in TV: how men deal with depression. It's often portrayed as a feminine problem, leaving men who suffer to feel even more alone.
7. Parks and Recreation
This may seem like an unexpected choice, since this sitcom is beloved for its humour and heart. But one character gives a glimpse of how depression doesn't always look like you expect.
Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) is best known for his relentless, cheerful optimism. But as time goes by, it becomes apparent that he's been hiding his depression all along. Watching him spiral into depressive episodes is a good example of how people sometimes project a happy facade because they're afraid to face their feelings. It also shows that positive thinking isn't a cure for depression.
Chris finds relief from his depression when he seeks therapy, and the skills he learns there help him to recognize later when another character is struggling. He reaches out to her, and he is able to share some of the strength he gained in therapy.