Last week was Mental Illness Awareness Week, which surprised me. It was the first time I had heard of such a thing, even as someone who has recently been taking time to actively focus on mental health. There are a handful of awareness months dedicated to similar causes, which admirably acknowledges mental health awareness as something that deserves perennial attention. For the first time, I feel strong enough to shed light on a topic that I’ve long struggled with discussing: my own struggles with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and how these issues tie into every aspect of my life — even and especially my creativity and ambition.
What I cannot avoid is that I live with OCD every day. What I cannot avoid is that I am an artist — a student studying screenwriting at the School of Cinematic Arts — who constantly thinks about how to spend her career creating and advocating for diverse content on television. And by diversity, I don’t mean only race — I mean diversity that hinges on intersectionality and depends on portraying people of color whose experiences are not exclusive to representing people of their race. And where the portrayal of mental illness is concerned, there is a visible paucity of characters of color whose stories explore and find the humanity in issues that white characters are afforded.
When researching which popular television shows depict mental health in their characters in powerful ways, familiar titles popped up for me: the United States of Tara and its exploration of a mom with various personalities, Shameless and bipolar disorder, Bojack Horseman and depression. (Interestingly, the latter stars — of all things — a horse.) These titles are among a longer list of shows that have broken ground with the way we talk about and empathize with mentally ill people, and the way we mine the depths of their humanity via emotional struggle.
Clearly, whether shows explore mental health accurately is an entirely different matter, crucial unto itself. But what is unclear to me is why progress still lags in the arena of portraying mental health onscreen. I wonder why mentally ill characters are still so vastly white, why we are conditioned to imagine depression first in terms of a horse before an underrepresented human being. In the way of counterarguments, there are several I can already predict: It’s hard enough to tell stories about minorities and mental illness, so who can be expected to do both; that maybe it’s not an empowering representation for diverse viewers; or that it just doesn’t matter. And yet, it matters so much. Denying diversity an opportunity to explore mental health goes hand in hand with creating complicated, flawed, powerful characters in one group of people but rarely others, and — in the grander scheme of things — selectively choosing to view the humanity and individuality in one group of people, but rarely in others.
On a personal note, I knew I loved writing before I even knew that a job like screenwriting existed.My earlier forays into literature were in the genres of poetry, short stories, a stage play. But I was never able to write about myself, and I still find it difficult to. When I tried, I felt this strange, intense shame — the feeling that there was nothing in me worth examining or worth being listened to, mixed with the idea that no one wanted to listen to my experiences, anyway. My earlier stories starred white, male protagonists because that was what I was used to seeing and what I knew how to emulate. Through high school, as my anxiety grew a life of its own, it felt like my anxiety and OCD existed somewhere between who I was and how I wanted the world to see me, trapped in a way that felt like I would always be watching myself suffer.
My fear, in not recognizing my own mental health issues, stemmed not from the fear that people wouldn’t believe me, but the idea that I wouldn’t let myself think about it. I attributed my OCD to a burgeoning need for perfection and a constantly fearful worry over the future, and I decided that it was who I was and always would be. I decided that maybe it was because I was Asian American, a high achiever like everyone perceived me, even though my parents never pushed me academically beyond anything they thought I couldn’t do. What’s darkly interesting is that I didn’t grow up in a space that stressed me out or made me believe life had to be perfect — and yet, I was still willing, even sometimes today, to think about my OCD in terms of the stereotypes that have always been thrust upon me by who else, but films, TV shows and the people who believe in them.
I take it as a sign that I didn’t start effective and long-lasting treatment for OCD until I moved to California for college, where for the first time I could walk down a street without feeling like I was wearing my race on my shoulders. It took me this long to fully explore my own voice in my writing, from my own heart. And what I’ve always believed, from the moment I set my sights on a career in film and television, is that every person in the world deserves to feel like they belong. I always say that proper representation in the media allows people to see others more clearly; but it allows us to see ourselves better, too.
Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs Tuesdays.