Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.


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Hannibal, My Mad Fat Diary, and mental health on television

We need more relatable and fair representations of mental health problems on TV, just as we’ve had with sexuality and race.

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal - a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal – a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

I love the TV show Hannibal. I love that the cannibalism is shot like food porn, that every line of dialogue can be interpreted in a thousand different ways, and that it’s one of the few shows left that’s gruesome enough to have me squeaking and covering my eyes like a terrified toddler.

I wouldn’t recommend binge watching it though – especially not alone. There’s something in the darkly surreal, theatrical spectacle of the show that, after a few episodes, you’re craving sunshine and candyfloss.

It’s not just the horror but the constant foregrounding and analysis of mental illness. We’ve been delighting in horrible murders on television for years, but when was the last time we saw a careful, thorough representation of a troubled mind, without its owner being portrayed as a monster or a helpless victim?

Will Graham, the show’s protagonist, has an “empathy disorder” which allows him to think and feel exactly like other people – a dangerous talent for someone who hunts serial killers for a living. Unbeknown to him, Will also has a physical disorder called encephalitis which causes him to hallucinate and lose time. Will also has Hannibal for a therapist – the combination of all three makes for intense and troubling viewing.

Representing mental illness on television is a step in the right direction. Last week, Jonathan Freedland argued that just as 24’s David Palmer “prepared” America for an African-American president, Modern Family’s gay parents Mitch and Cam prepared it for same-sex marriage. In essence, the world that we see on our TV screens is not just a reflection of society, but a mould for it. The feminist adage that “You can’t be what you can’t see” springs to mind.

I’m by no means saying that well-off psychiatric professionals are going to start eating their patients at elaborate dinner parties after an ill-timed season two marathon. Nor am I arguing that Hannibal’s presentation of mental health is unproblematic. But the show’s candid discussion of these issues might help prepare its viewers for later, real world discussions. As a society we’re long overdue an open dialogue about mental health and the stigmas surrounding it, but hopefully, Hannibal will serve as a conversational aperitif.

It’s an eloquent show, and one that’s constantly discussing how it feels when your mental health is slipping. In the very first episode, Hannibal gives a perfect explanation of an anxiety disorder:

“Our brain is designed to experience anxiety in short bursts, not the prolonged duress your neuroses seem to enjoy. It’s why you feel as though a lion were on the verge of devouring you… You have to convince yourself the lion is not in the room.”

This is a valuable description of the kind of feeling that millions of us face every day, in slightly less dramatic – but no less terrifying – circumstances. It doesn’t matter where your anxiety comes from. If you feel like there is a lion in the room, the symptoms are the same. And the more the world gets to see that in relatable characters, the more it might be understood when it happens in real life.

Hannibal has its flaws. Not so much monster-of-the-week as it is “psychosis-of-the-week”, the show presents a veritable conveyor belt of mentally ill patients-turned-serial-killers – not exactly poster kids for recovery – and the show’s indulgence in fantastical melodrama makes it hard to argue that it’s giving a realistic portrayal of these issues.

That’s why we need protagonists who we can really relate to – who could be us, our sister, or our best friend. Thankfully – finally – we are getting them.

Rae Earl, the main character in Channel 4’s My Mad Fat Diary, is a funny, sharp, and relatable teenage girl. While Rae’s struggle with depression and anxiety is the show’s main plotline, time is devoted to her problems with friends, her mum, and her weight, schoolwork and love life.

At last: a real character whose illness does not define her intelligence, confidence, or relationships, but neither does the show shy away from discussing it.

As a diary format, there are constant doodles super-imposed on the action, so even when Rae’s face remains a pillar of cool disdain, we can see what she’s really thinking. In the midst of a panic attack, the marker pen effect begins drawing circles around the edge of the frame, which get faster and closer, encroaching on her terrified face until half the screen is obscured by angry black lines.

I can’t think of a more accurate representation of that feeling – the feeling that the entire world is pressing in, that you could stop it if you were just strong enough, that you can’t see anything outside of your own head. The show also gives hope that you can learn to control those feelings and they don’t have to determine the way you live your life.

But My Mad Fat Diary ended in March, and tonight so will Hannibal (at least for a while). It’s great that two shows in such disparate genres are dealing with these issues in their own way. Like minority races, sexualities, and genderqueer people, people with mental health problems should be found across all of our media, not just gritty issue dramas. If parents are more understanding of their children’s differences because of a character on TV, then TV is doing something right. Let’s have more of that, please.


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Why is no one talking about depression after university?

Every year, thousands of students’ lives change dramatically, often leaving them isolated, anxious, and even depressed. It’s time we started talking about it.

“Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.” Post-university depression is not only real, but also rarely talked about. Photo: Flickr/pigeonpie

“Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.” Post-university depression is not only real, but also rarely talked about. Photo: Flickr/pigeonpie

“Imagine sitting on a limb for a long time and, when you try to stand on it, you buckle under. You can’t get up. Everyone around you is standing up and telling you to do the same, but you just can’t. You dare not.”

Robyn Hall* graduated from university last summer. Despite being one of the lucky few to quickly find a job in her chosen field, she still struggled with the transition into her new life.

She described the difficulty of coming to terms with her feelings of depression.

“‘But you’re a graduate!’ my brain yelled at me. ‘Grow up!’ But the self-loathing continued. You leave a place you’ve been in for three or four years, where you developed so much, leaving behind the closest friends you’ve possibly ever had. Even if you do get a job, nobody tells you that once you ‘hit the jackpot’, you’ll struggle to make new friends; that 9-5 will leave you exhausted. You’re scared of not being good enough, that you won’t live up to expectations. It’s the ultimate disparity between representation and reality.”

Robyn is not the only one to struggle with depression after leaving university. When I graduated, I went from feeling the happiest I’ve been in my adult life, to the worst. By October I was jumping at sudden noises and afraid to leave my bedroom. When a year-long relationship suddenly ended, I didn’t know how to see past the black clouds pressing in on me.

I sought help from my GP, who referred me to a local mental health outreach programme. But in the end, it was time, a relocation, and support from friends that began to stabilise the feelings of anxiety and depression.

I can count graduates with similar stories on two hands – and those are just the ones close enough to confide in me. Every year, thousands of people’s lives are turned upside down when they jubilantly throw a hat into the air, then watch it come crashing down into reality. So why does no one talk about the feelings of hopelessness that so many are left with?

After all, with over 900,000 young people currently unemployed and benefits for under-25s constantly under threat, is it any wonder that mental health issues in young people are rising across the board?

I spoke to Matt Tidby, who stayed in his university town of Norwich following graduation, supporting himself with temp jobs. “The majority of the work itself was doable, if monotonous – but things like the telephone, where I was expected to advise on mortgages after about half-a-day’s training, left me hugely anxious and very unhappy. I suffered on a personal level, and lost a lot of confidence in my ability to do both that job, and any of the jobs I actually craved.

“Quite ridiculously, I lived in fear of being ‘put on the phones’ – I built that minor stress into a mountain of worry that blotted out everything. After about a month, the job applications stopped. I got into quite a destructive system of trying to make it to each weekend without things getting too shit to handle. Anxiety about Monday would start on Saturday night.”

Matt eventually left the job, recognising the damage it was doing, and said that things were beginning to get better. “It’s a daily, rapidly changing situation, really – a positive email or a phone call can reverse many days of feeling low. It’s a strange inversion of my time temping; whereas once I lived in terror of the phone ringing, now I urge it to. I’m more hopeful that it will.”

While researching this piece, I found very little information targeted specifically at graduates suffering from mental health problems, despite an article in the Independent last year that found that of 40 students and recent graduates surveyed, “95% believed that post-university depression was very much a real thing”.

With so little information available, I contacted the mental health charity Mind directly. Head of information, Beth Murphy, had this to say:

“Moving on from university is often the biggest change a person has experienced up to that point in their lifetime. Added to this, today’s graduates are facing the double-whammy of the debt associated with paying for university and a tough job market that can seem impenetrable.

“Financial stress and uncertainty around employment are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Mind has seen a surge in calls to our Infoline from people struggling with financial difficulties, many of them post-graduates. Our In the Red report actually found that 85% of respondents said their financial difficulties had made their mental health problems worse.”

So if post-university depression is “a real thing”, why does no one talk about it? Is this the same stigma surrounding mental health that affects all sufferers, or is there something else going on? Robyn believes that there is a pressure on graduates to feel grateful for their position.

“Once you get a 9-5 job, coping with depression can be worse. People are all over to congratulate you, help you in any way they can; you’re so afraid of disappointing everyone that you just let the guilt fester away. I think even in the media it’s not represented enough that you can do your ‘dream job’ and not feel right.”

So what can be done? Beth recommends communication above all else. “If you are worried about your mental health, confide in a friend or family member or speak to your GP. There are also lots of small things you can do to make yourself feel better – exercise can be hugely beneficial, releasing chemicals which help increase wellbeing and mood. Keeping in touch with friends is also important, as withdrawing from social contact can make things worse.”

Whether you attended university or not, being young and uncertain about your future is the perfect opportunity for feelings of anxiety to take hold. I’m constantly struggling with my own mental health, but I’m one of the lucky ones; I have a job to focus me, friends to listen when things get dark, and access to medical help. But the same can’t be said for everyone, and with mental health trusts asked to shave almost 20% from their budgets next year, that last, vital support system is more at risk than ever.

It’s time to stop suffering in silence and acknowledge depression after graduation as a real risk to young adults. And it’s time to stop cutting the very services that may well save their lives.

• For information, support and advice please visit mind.org.uk or call Mind’s confidential mental health information service on 0300 123 3393.

• To find out more about starting conversations and tackling mental health stigma, visit time-to-change.org.uk

*Names have been changed.