Representation matters: for people of color, for all ages and orientations, for health issues, for all of the ways a person can identify. Below you’ll find examples of tv shows, movies, and books that represent anxiety, panic attacks, and some broader mental health issues accurately and in a way that’s relatable.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I teach this one to my students and every year my skin tingles during the times we read aloud in class. I have such love for Charlie, the main character, because he is so honest and earnest and really struggling to figure himself out. My favorite line – and one that I used to use to describe my state of mind when the anxiety was really bad – is I’m both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. One of the main characters suffers from manic depression but doesn’t know what it is because he hasn’t been diagnosed or sought treatment. It’s an interesting look at how often we dismiss mental health conditions as just “the way a person is”, and how those of us with conditions can internalize that and therefore refuse to seek help.
- Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. Leonard plans to commit suicide, but before he does, he spends a day saying his goodbyes and planning to take one of his classmates with him. Leonard struggles to articulate what’s going on with him, and he writes letters to himself as a way to process it.
- Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. This book, about a family where a father has passed Generalized Anxiety Disorder on to his son(because it IS genetic), is told from each family member’s point of view. It’s an interesting look at what happens when people know enough to know that mental illness is not part of someone’s personality and it’s not a choice, but they still treat the individual with the disorder as though they just have to work hard and then they’ll be cured. And that’s really the key: the characters in this book all – even the ones with GAD – believe that it’s about cure and not management, and that struggle is one that makes it harder for everyone.
- It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. This has some of the best descriptions of what physically happens to you during anxiety that I have ever read. In particular, he does a wonderful job of describing ruminating, tightness in your chest, and all of the messed-up stomach stuff that happens like losing your appetite or going to the bathroom many, many times. This helped me to articulate my physical symptoms in a way that feels more real to people than just saying “I don’t feel very well” or “my anxiety is acting up”.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book is the best thing I have ever read. Honestly. And I read a lot. I love this book so much that I bought it twice: one digital, one hard copy, because I just couldn’t stand to not have it on my shelf. To be clear: this book broke my heart about every 40 pages and I cried a lot while reading it. It’s an incredibly in-depth look at how tragedy informs our lives in ways we understand and ways we don’t even know exist. And it’s a testament to the power of empathy and loyalty. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
- Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. The main character of this book deals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and it does a pretty good job of depicting the mental side of things. It doesn’t deal with the physical side as much, but her worry about her family and school and a budding relationship feels very, very real.
- Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. I love how this book presents the way that anxiety and mental health interact with loss and our expectations of others (and ourselves). The movie is also brilliant, so you’re good with either one.
- Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation. If you’ve read early entries, you know that I love me some Chris Traeger. I identify with him so much because he’s someone who has tried to deal with his anxiety by doing everything BUT dealing with it, but when he finally does he finds that he’s stronger and more resilient than he ever thought he could be.
- Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. After the first season of Kimmy, I figured I’d keep watching because Titus. But when she started going to therapy in season 2, I fell in love with her. It wasn’t just the fact that her therapist (played by Tina Fey) drops some amazing one liners; as the show has progressed, it is incredibly clear how Kimmy’s trauma has changed who she is and what’s important to her. As someone who spent a long time wishing their anxiety would go away and then realizing that it was a big part of what gave my life meaning, I love how it shows that trauma and mental health can be difficult and heart-wrenching, but that it is possible to transform at least part of the experience into something that gives you purpose.
- Randall Pearson from This Is Us. Ok. So, I haven’t watched this yet, BUT I have seen the scene where he has a panic attack and his portrayal is spot on. I’ll add more when I watch!
- Jessica Jones from Jessica Jones. I love this show. I love how tough and damaged Jessica is, because it just feels so accurate: I’m always trying to act like nothing is wrong even when it’s obvious it is. While she’s dealing with PTSD and not anxiety, I really appreciate the depiction of where she is in her process: she knows something big happened, but she’s trying to forget about it by ignoring it and self-medicating with alcohol and she’s skeptical of treatment. But she’s trying. This, this trying but backsliding or not being ready to jump in all the way or resistance, feels really real.
- David Haller from Legion. Firstly, I love that David is an unreliable narrator. What a great device. I also love how he experiences the world: some people dismiss him outright because he’s “crazy”, some try to help him but ultimately end up not recognizing the issue or doing the wrong thing, some people totally get it and actually do help him, and – this is the most important and accurate part – his illness loves him and he loves it. It depends on him and he on it. It makes itself integral to who he is and he has real trouble without it; he misses it. That’s how I feel about my anxiety and why I call it Lenny in homage.
- Fear and Sadness from Inside Out. I love this movie so much. It came out when anxiety stuff was really bad, and when Sadness says “crying helps me slow down and obsess over the world’s problems” I leaned over to my sister and was like “THAT’S ME”. The two of them, for me, are exactly what anxiety is: you’re sad, worried, scared, impotent, and bewildered all at the same time and it’s impossible to know which thoughts make sense and which ones are just your brain trying to trick you.
- Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is one of those rare instances where the movie really is as good as the book; Logan Lehrman does a great job of portraying Charlie’s anxiety and I highly encourage you to watch it.
- Marlin from Finding Nemo. On first viewing, Marlin is just a really overprotective dad. But when you watch it again, it’s such an accurate depiction of rumination: how your mind latches on to one thought and it’s incredibly hard to break the thought loop.
- Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. I love how this movie really captures what it’s like to come of age: worrying all the time about who you are, who you’ll turn into, if you’ll make friends, if you’ll find your place. This is something can anxiety still makes me worry about sometimes, even about people I’ve known for decades.
- Joel from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Questions about who you are aren’t just for teenagers; I spent a lot of my 20s wondering who I’d be if certain relationships had turned out differently or had never happened. I thought about what if so often, and created so much anxiety for myself.
- Amelie from Amelie. Oh, my heart. I remember when I first realized that Amelie has anxiety, and it was like a dam broke inside my brain. I identify so much with her struggle to find her place in the world and someone who understands her instead of trying to fit her into their definition of “normal”.