Mental Health Awards: why Normal People’s depiction of depression is so ground-breaking

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 BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People 

BBC Three’s critically-acclaimed TV series, Normal People, deals with a number of important themes throughout its 12 episodes, including loss, loneliness, and consent.

It is the final three episodes, though, which have been singled out and praised for their careful and realistic handling of men’s mental health issues.

In them, we see Paul Mescal’s Connell struggle with depression as he struggles to deal with the loss of a close friend to suicide. Steering clear of heavy-handed Hollywood mental health tropes, though, the show explores all the subtle ways in which depression can manifest itself.

As Twitter user Danny Boy notes: “What I found particularly impressive is they showed Connell continuing to function with depression. Hollywood tropes often reduce it to just staying in bed 24/7.

“In the show, he continues to go to class and to work. He still functions.”

Connell may be functioning, but his struggle to do so is made clear by his disengagement from the people around him. His complete loss of energy. His inability to even so much as make eye contact with his girlfriend Helen (Aoife Hinds) as she breaks up with him. And it’s underlined in his increasingly debilitating panic attacks, which steadily grow in intensity throughout the series, too.

Eventually, Niall (Desmond Eastwood) begins to pick up on his roommate’s ‘flat’ demeanour and behaviour. And, rightfully concerned, he encourages Connell to seek therapy.

“It’s free,” he says. “You might as well.”

Normal People: Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne.

Connell agrees to seek help, a move that feels ground-breaking enough alone to warrant praise. Better still, Normal People deals with his recovery in an accurate and compassionate way: his progress is shown to be gradual, even with the help of medication. 

However, it is his emotional breakthrough in a therapy session – in which Connell finally allows himself to air his feelings and lead with vulnerability – which we’d like to single out this Mental Health Awareness Week. Because, in airing these scenes, Normal People –one of the most viewed TV shows of 2020 so far – has helped to break down the damaging societal archetype of the strong and silent man. The very same man who may not feel permission to seek support if he’s going through a tough time.

“In school, I definitely felt that feeling of isolation or whatever,” Connell says emotionally. “People seemed to like me. Here, I don’t think that people like me that much. Like Rob, my friend who… well, I wouldn’t say that we clicked on a very deep level or anything but we were friends.

“I wouldn’t say that we had a lot in common in terms of interests, or anything and definitely not politically but we never really examined that. But that stuff didn’t really matter in school, because we were in the same group of friends, so, you know. And he did some stuff that I wouldn’t have been a fan of in terms of, like, with girls, but we were 18, you know, we acted like idiots. I think I felt a bit alienated by that stuff.

“And, I think I thought if I moved here I’d fit in better. I thought I’d be with more like-minded people but that just hasn’t happened.”

Roughly wiping away tears, Connell adds: “I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life. But I hate it here and I can never go back because those friendships are gone and Rob is gone and I can’t see him again. 

“I can’t get that life back.”

Speaking about the beautiful and nuanced scenes, Mescal has admitted that he felt an enormous amount of pressure to get them right.

“Three people killed themselves at my school,” the actor recently shared with The Independent. “So it’s not fictional to me, it’s real, and I was really nervous portraying it.”

Mescal explained that his mother took him out of lessons for a week after the first death, because they realised that he “wasn’t equipped to cope with that level of devastation”.

“I wasn’t particularly close to the person, but that kind of sadness permeates through an entire year group,” he said. “The distinct feeling I remember having at the time is that I didn’t know how to perform sadness in the way I saw other people around me being sad.

“I was nervous that people didn’t think I was sad enough. I found the whole thing incredibly confusing and, in hindsight, formative.”

Normal People
Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) share a moment in Normal People.

It is worth noting here that, in the UK, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. In the Republic of Ireland, that number is even higher: men are four times more likely than women to take their own lives.

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45. The cause for this, of course, is impossible to attribute to just one thing: some people can say why they feel suicidal, but in other instances there may not be a clear reason, or they may be unable to talk about what they are feeling or experiencing.

What we can say, though, is this: men don’t talk enough. Indeed, last year’s survey carried out by The Samaritans found that two in five men in England, Scotland and Wales aged between 20 and 59 don’t seek support when they need to because they prefer to solve their own problems. The survey also showed that men often don’t want to feel like a burden and don’t feel their problems will be understood. 

Connell’s emotionally-charged monologue – prompted, in a beautiful shattering of mental health taboos, by another man’s concern – reminds us that there is no selection process when it comes to the likes of depression, anxiety or OCD: it’s a serious chemical illness that can affect anyone. It opens up societal perceptions of what it means to be a man, celebrating male vulnerability as a form of bravery – a decision which feels incredibly refreshing amid the toxic messaging of “man up” and “get a grip” being peddled by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson

Normal People shows us the quiet and insidious reality of depression, yes. But it also reminds of the power that comes from simply listening and being there for someone. It inspires us to strive towards a more open and supportive culture.

Above all else, though, Connell’s breakthrough in Normal People hammers home the fact that it’s always, always, always OK to accept help, no matter who you are. To talk when you need to.  And to answer honestly, really honestly, when someone asks you how you are.

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: Hulu/BBC

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