Mental Health Awards: this Netflix cartoon captures what living with depression is really like

Posted by for People

From anxiety to postnatal depression, Stylist’s Mental Health Awards is spotlighting a year of TV shows that portrayed mental health issues in the most accurate and compassionate way.     

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the final season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. 

BoJack Horseman is one of those Netflix titles that’s frequently tossed around in conversation. Someone will be a staunch advocate for the adult cartoon. Someone else in the group, though, will dismiss it out of hand because it’s an animated TV series – assuming, wrongly, that this means it will rely on childish humour in a bid to deliver light relief.

Yes, BoJack Horseman is funny. And, yes, sometimes its jokes are a little on the silly side (this is, after all, a show about an anthropomorphic horse). 

However, it also offers one of the quote-unquote best depictions of mental health on TV.

The titular star of BoJack Horseman is, of course, a washed-up TV star turned alcoholic depressive. But we don’t want to talk about BoJack (Will Arnett). We want to talk about BoJack’s best friend, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie).

Early on in the show’s run, Diane is positioned as being a source of wisdom and sanity. Indeed, the other characters often remark on how much she seems to have her life together by comparison. However, as is so often the case, Diane’s life is very different behind closed doors.

We learn that she, like BoJack, hails from a place of emotional neglect. That she minimises her own suffering in order to prioritise the happiness of those around her. That she finds it incredibly, incredibly difficult to express how she’s really feeling.

“It’s not about being happy, that is the thing,” she tells BoJack, way back in season three. “I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know if I believe in it, real lasting happiness.

“All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows? I don’t think they exist.”

In the fifth season, Diane reaches the height of her depression. On the outside, though, everything looks fine: she’s newly divorced, she’s quit her job to write her own book, she’s got a new haircut, she’s excited to make a fresh start. She’s functioning, sure, but it soon becomes clear she’s going through the motions when, away from prying eyes, she breaks down sobbing in her car.

Much like Normal People’s Connell (Paul Mescal), Diane eventually realises that she needs to work towards healing. She meets with a therapist, she works on setting boundaries with the toxic people (read: BoJack) in her life, and she gets herself into a good place. She finds love with Guy (Lakeith Stanfield), who understands what she’s going through and offers her support. She moves to Chicago. She embraces all of the amazing opportunities that life has to offer.

And yet… 

Well, that doesn’t mean that Diane’s depression vanishes overnight. Indeed, in ‘The Face Of Depression’ , an episode which aired during the show’s sixth and final season, we learn that Guy feels uncomfortable leaving for a work trip because of Diane’s growing depression.

“Your psychiatrist says you’re depressed,” he tells her.

“Yeah, I’ve been a little depressed but I’m not like ‘depressed,’” replies Diane. “I don’t ‘have’ depression.”

Guy explains that he’s concerned Diane has been smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and wearing the same PJ bottoms for weeks. He urges her to try the medication she has been prescribed by her doctor.

“Well, it would make me feel worse,” she replies, finally giving voice to her fears. “They put me on Prozac in college and I became so boring… it sucks. It made me breakout. I gained weight. What if you leave and come back and you come back to this person you don’t even recognise?”

Powerfully, Guy responds: “I don’t even recognise you now.”

Guy leaves for his work event. When he comes home, Diane is waiting to pick him up at the airport. She’s smiling, and we soon find out that she’s taken the medication. That she’s found an effective way to get her depression under control. And it is this journey – so realistic in its messiness and imperfections – which deserves so much praise. 

“Yeah, I’ve been a little depressed but I’m not like ‘depressed,’” replies Diane. “I don’t ‘have’ depression.”

In Hollywood, we usually see “depressed” characters spend endless days in darkened rooms. They stop functioning entirely. And then, just like that, they’re cured. In the real world, though, that isn’t the case.

Yes, depression can be treated. Yes, symptoms can be alleviated. No, it cannot be “cured.” Instead, remission is the goal. And, while it’s a tough pill to swallow, it’s worth remembering that there’s no universally accepted definition of remission. There’s no ‘one size fits all’: it varies for each person. And people may still have symptoms or impaired functioning with remission.

It’s unique to see a character on screen like Diane, and it’s also important. Important for everyone to know it’s OK to feel lonely, that it’s OK to suffer setbacks, that the symptoms of depression don’t just go away overnight.

Diane’s story, too, shows us how vital it is to speak openly about mental health with their friends. 

Above all else, though, Diane shows us that the person we may believe to be the strongest in the room is just as much at risk of depression as anyone else. So ask them if they’re OK, please. Check in on them. And let them know that it’s more than OK to ask for help when they need to.

Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Sign up to our daily email for a curated edit of the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you’ll never miss out on the conversation again.

Images: Netflix

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray