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TV and Mental Health: Breaking stigma one Lyon at a time

I think I should start by saying I am not writing this to promote anyone or any entity… not a TV show, or actor. Empire is not my favorite show on TV, nor do I pretend to be an expert in character analysis, however after having the pleasure of meeting Trai Byers (Andre Lyon), at a conference a few weeks ago, I felt prompted to write something about it.

I started watching Empire because of all the excitement around the Caymanian actress Grace Gealey. With each episode I had a desire to support and celebrate her success. I have continued to watch Empire off and on 2-3 episodes at a time (my favorite way to watch TV if I am indulging J) because of the music, AND because of how they showcase relevant issues in mental health.

In the last few years there have been many shows that have highlighted mental health but what I think is different in Empire is that these characters actually say the diagnosis… the big bad label that we so often run from saying out loud and don't understand. Through Empire we clearly see how it is impacting the characters’ lives, and for a few, we see the treatment they receive.

Within the first episode we learn that Andre Lyon is Bi-Polar and takes medication to treat it. Andre is extremely educated, intelligent, well mannered, articulate, and impeccably dressed. He certainly has his quirks in some of his interests and ways to manipulate people, however, as an outsider you wouldn't know of his internal suffering, and how the illness is affecting him. It is something we see him dealing with on his own; not even his family totally understands to what extent he is experiencing life. We see him struggle to take his meds at times. Even when Andre is consistently taking his meds, we see as major stressors trigger depressive states, outbursts, and hallucinations. We also learn that his paternal grandmother was diagnosed as bipolar… his brother is an addict, and his father has something we just cant put our finger on.

While the show is certainly over the top and outlandish, the depictions of most aspects of Andre’s disorder are quite accurate.

(1) Mental Illness has no bounds; it affects people of all different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and educational levels.

(2) Surely there are particular set of behaviors and signs that indicate someone is experiencing a mental illness such as Bi-Polar disorder, however the behaviors are influenced by a person’s personal beliefs, internal dialogue, thoughts, and their feelings which is usually kept private. Not sharing these things with others is out of shame, and fear of not being understood, judged, not helpable, or not wanting to be a burden.

(3) Sometimes family doesn't know how to help OR doesn't have the capacity to help. On the show, both of Andre’s love interests have been supportive of him. At times, they reached out to other family members for more support when they didn't know what to do, and couldnt keep his struggle a secret. Other family members made his illness into a joke, and called him “crazy.” Having a support system to share things that are really going on is so important. I work with my clients to identify who in their life can empathize and validate how they are feeling, and who do we just have to just accept for who they are, and there will be some things they cant lean on them for.

(4) So often I have clients who need meds but don't want them or start taking meds, and stop. I am not a pill pusher but 150% recognize psychiatric medications do help many people… especially people with bi-polar disorder. These meds can have some uncomfortable side effects, which can be a deterrent of taking them. Having a counselor help the client weigh the pros and cons between side effects of meds versus personal consequences and destructive behaviors without taking them, will help someone make a good decision on what will work best for their life.

(5) Even when taking medications as prescribed, relapse in behaviors can still happen. Unexpected life events have a way of spinning, even the healthiest person, upside down. Research shows that psychiatric medication works more effectively when used while receiving counseling. When something comes up in the person’s life to veer them off track, they will be able to work through it in counseling instead of staying stuck in their head, making things mean things they don't, making a problem bigger than it is, having the person think they are worse than they really are, etc.

(6) Mental health illnesses such as bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety, autism, and ADHD run in families. There is a sense of comfort knowing that someone else in the family might be experiencing something similar to you. By talking about it, they might learn new coping strategies on what has been helpful or not.

There are so many shows on right now that portray characters with mental health concerns, showing the importance of talking to someone about the issues, and normalizing counseling. Of course, some shows are better than others at doing this. The importance is in the conversations these shows are causing people to have. Debating whether the show accurately depicts the problem has a side effect of bringing awareness to others who might not have been informed… and awareness is a step to true change.

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