If you enjoy television (who doesn't) and want to learn more about mental health (always a good idea) then it's good to know what's out there. Below is Part 1 of a series in which I will highlight and briefly discuss the most prominent, mental health-relevant shows on the air today. Please email with any thoughts on the categorical/rating system and other shows that are not on the list but should be.
Title: Criminal Minds
Summary: A highly-trained group of FBI profilers (the Behavioral Analysis Unit) consult on complex cases involving the most sadistic serial killers in society. They create ‘psychological profiles' of the suspects in order to better understand motives and predict future behavior.
Themes of Mental Health: Psychopathology: almost every case involves issues of trauma, sexual abuse, disability, insecure attachment styles, and a wide range of Axis I and II disorders with OCD, Anti-Social PD and Narcissistic PD being the most prevalent. Portrait of mental health professional: One member of the BAU is a psychologist named Dr. Spencer Reid.
Degree of focus: As high as it gets: each episode's killer is labeled with a disorder, the sole purpose of the Unit is to diagnose and assess the killer versus ‘tracking him/her down' and all of the Unit's members are well-versed and oriented toward psychological ideas (though I've noticed there is not an effort to incorporate specific and current tools, techniques, theories or theoreticians).
Popularity: As high as it gets: An Emmy-nominated, award-winning CBS show that is still going strong as it hits its seventh season. It replays daily on multiple cable channels.
Title: I used to be fat
Summary: An individual with a difficult life story who is struggling to lose weight is put through a rigorous physical training program in the service of shedding pounds and gaining self-confidence.
Themes of Mental Health: Growth and positive change; identity development and formation; trauma and abuse (sometimes and always treated as secondary to current physical problems); disability and impaired functioning. Portrait of a health professional: A physical trainer is the primary interventionist, but he/she often touches upon issues of identity, motivation and growth (at times unintentionally and inexpertly).
Degree of focus: Peripheral: the stated goal is to lose weight but as the episode unfolds sub-textual psychological themes become increasingly explicit.
Popularity: Not quite there yet: This is an MTV reality television show in its infancy (1st season). It joins a long list of weekly ‘weight-oriented' shows and will likely remain under the radar.
Title: Friday Night Lights
Summary: A small Texas town is crazy about its high school football. This show follows the coaches, players, and families that must contend and cope with the pressures of winning and losing.
Themes of Mental Health: Family systems; positive organizations and attachment styles; positive emotions and character strengths; flow and spiritual experiences. Portrait of a mental health professional: The wife of the coach/protagonist is also a guidance counselor who occasionally treats emotional/social difficulties of the students/players.
Degree of focus: More than you would think (for a show about football): The show is psychologically-minded. Meaning, each character has a soap-opera, 90210 life story but is atypically self-aware and introspective.
Popularity: It's a critically acclaimed, NBC show that just finished its fifth and final season and will rerun on ABC family. The show is deemed by many to be a cult classic in part because its popularity has been stymied by the network's decision to air each season exclusively on DirecTV.
Title: In Treatment
Summary: The show follows a psychotherapist, Dr. Paul Weston, who assesses and treats the patients in his private practice. The show predominately consists of his weekly sessions, including his own supervision.
Themes of Mental Health: Psychopathology (wide range of mental disorders, mainly mood disorders like Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder); trauma, abuse, personality disorders, family dynamics, LGBT issues, suicide and major life transitions are all sporadically touched upon. Portrait of a mental health professional: The main character is a clinical psychologist (can't get more relevant than that).
Degree of focus: Even higher than Criminal Minds: Each episode raises issues central to therapy like the patient-client relationship, confidentiality, unresolved emotional problems and secrets, and seems to borrow arbitraily from various theoretical approaches and ideas from the world of psychodynamic and analytic treatment.
Popularity: The show is an Emmy-award winning HBO series which, as a general rule, means it's very high quality but not as popular as it should be. It's currently running in its third season.
Title: Breaking Bad
Summary: The show follows Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He begins to develop and deal methamphetamine with a former student in the hopes of securing financial stability for his family.
Themes of Mental Health: Psychopathology (negative emotions, dissociation, addiction, trauma), mid-life crisis (not a formal diagnosis), family conflict and morality.
Degree of focus: Peripheral: the characters are psychologically-minded but mental health is not discussed in overt terms.
Popularity: Mainstreamed and rising fast: This Emmy-award winning AMC series is entering its fourth season as hot as any show out there.