The Handling of Anxiety on TV


By Emily Angelastro


When television writers can grasp and portray the topic of anxiety with knowledge and understanding, impactful television is produced. Viewers learn better ways to help themselves or a friend when medical issues are handled correctly and with care. On the other hand, when mental illness is mishandled and misunderstood, it can have a devastating effect. One remarkable portrayal of the illness is Randall Pearson from the NBC drama This Is Us. The other portrayal that the show’s audience watched crash and burn is Clay Jensen from the Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why. 

More often than not, television fails to meet the requirements needed to educate all age groups, especially younger ones. Studies have proven that exposure to the glorification of mental illnesses, in this case, suicide, is a major risk factor to those who are sensitive to those struggling.


Carolina Dueña, a recent Hunter College graduate, says, “I’ve been watching television shows, like everyone else, my entire life. There really is not one show I can think of that had characters dealing with mental health issues that didn’t come up before the past… five years? I am happy for the younger generation today that has these shows available to them from an early age.” While this is true, although the representation might be there, that doesn’t mean it’s always a healthy one. 

Clay Jensen is the main character of 13 Reasons Why, and from Season 1, he appeared to be hiding some ailment for which he needed medication. His mental health was poked, teased, and almost used as a guessing game for viewers.


However, the show did not truly address his pain until Season 4, when he completely began to come apart at the seams and suffer from frequent panic attacks. He appeared to be unstable and needed professional help. The show marketed itself as a bold and disturbingly raw series to show the ugliness and tragedy behind the fragility of mental health. Oh, the irony. 13 Reasons Why received endless criticism for its glorification or careless addressing of issues, one being Clay’s evident anxietyThere seemed to be much more wrong with his psyche since the writers decided to make him see dead people in Season 2 and miserably failed at making those scenes metaphorical. It demanded to be explored, and after showing Clay suffer breakdown after breakdown, they opted out and had him say he “mostly suffers from anxiety” and that he “doesn’t see ghosts, he just imagines them.” Yup, that was it. Not only that, save for one or two, most of his friends didn’t seem too concerned either and just seemed more alarmed than anything of his irrational behavior. Plus, instead of his therapist giving him any real insight or comfort, he ended up in a psychiatric ward. This example is concerning, considering how much impact the show had on the colossal number of youths who tuned in. 


A study found that from a survey of 157 teens, 92% of viewers searched for information on mental health topics related to what was shown in the show. Not to mention research showed that teen suicide spiked after the series’ debut. While it claims to bring mental health to light, there is too much evidence proving that no matter how many warnings are given or the number of topics covered, it is way too fragile to be excused when it’s done this poorly.


Many shows try and fail to showcase and tackle serious issues. NBC’s “This Is Us” nailed the topic of anxiety on the head, and heart-wrenchingly so through the character of Randall Pearson. Randall’s illness is known pretty much right off the bat to the audience and other characters in the show; there’s no mystery to it. Yet, the show doesn’t make his entire character circle around his illness. He has depth and is very lovable, but his anxiety is significant in his storyline. The topic of anxiety is explored through him, particularly in one episode done with such grace and care that it’s hard to believe he is not someone you know personally.  The episode goes deep into this sense of unease brewing under the surface, but it isn’t overdone or brushed over.


Georgette Malitsis, a Rutgers graduate, says, “I love this show, especially because of how it handles these issues in such a real way. It’s not preachy, overdone, or cheesy. Randall is still a normal guy with a story to tell, but he deals with something just like everyone else in the world does.” When it’s time to let the audience know what an anxiety attack feels like, the direction and writing show how terrifying it is


People all over social media believed the portrayal didn’t underestimate the issue and succeeded in its accurate portrayal. A considerable part of this is the surrounding characters’ care and attention to his anxiety. Randall’s brother Kevin and his wife Beth are two of the people he has leaned on the most throughout life, and these two, in particular, show the audience ways to help out a loved one suffering from anxiety. While Randall has been averse to therapy since he was young, This Is Us made sure the audience knew that Randall is aware of this. It’s part of his characterization to only let certain people in, not that it’s the way to go about handling anxiety. He is human, and every human has their idiosyncrasies and bases decisions on their comfort level. Randall Pearson is not only a beloved friend, father, son, and brother but a true pioneer in what will hopefully be many more accurate portrayals of anxiety to come. 

Television has the power to remove or lessen the stigma of mental health and offer guidance to an entire audience as to how to handle issues such as anxiety. TV is a form of entertainment, and people tend to pay attention to their favorite characters in their favorite shows when they are dealing with something. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S.and writers have the power to change the way society views the illness and help guide those who are struggling.