ABC’s new series, Black Box, is about a neuroscientist, Catherine Black, who works to help others with mental health disorders, while she simultaneously deals with her unmanaged bipolar disorder. The show is a mature drama that follows Dr. Black through her chaos as she tries to find herself, manage her disorder, and endure her many destructive behaviors. Interestingly, her lifestyle deviates little from what is typically portrayed in prime-time dramas—this show simply adds the mental illness twist.
The Black Box is an honest attempt at capturing the reality of mental illness, but instead creates a wake of chaos that only causes further discouragement … and stigma. My wife asked, “What’s the goal of this show?” I couldn’t give her an answer.
I do appreciate how the show’s creators bring to light the struggles many people experience as they live with a diagnosable mental illness. Though the portrayal is “hollywoodized,” principally these struggles are common and very real. Here are some central struggles that I identified:
1) Her fight to be “normal,” while fearing that “normal” will be too mediocre.
2) The struggle of identity within the mental illness: “Bipolar is hard-wired into my identity, my personality.” A sense of diminished self-worth.
3) The need to hide the mental illness to protect herself from being rejected in her career, relationships, and in life over-all.
4) Being non-compliant to medications.
5) The destructive euphoric mania with delusions, psychosis, and hyper-sexuality that endangers her life, career, relationships, and her own personal shame. This is the extreme spectrum of bipolar.
6) The difficult pain and trauma of growing up with a parent with mental illness who received no quality care.
8) Rejection from families and even abandoned by family (the patient Lucy).
9) Family denial … the struggle with reconciling expectations for a brilliant son who also has a mental illness.
10) People with mental illness are brilliant and successful—not just homeless and criminals!
Tweets during the show were just as “polarized” and mixed. For many, and for the same reasons I stated above, it validated many of the trials associated with mental disorders. But overall, it only added more stigmas and gave no promising hope.
1) Did You Take Your Medication … for someone unaware of mental illness, it leaves the impression that it’s all about the medication to be normal. As one tweet said, “Bipolar disorder is not controlled by a pill that magically turns it on and off every other day. Mental illness is stigmatized” #blackbox @Katlinelizabeth. Medication is an important role, but not the light switch to make everything “normal”.
2) Counseling Into Sanity … Catherine’s therapist seemed to be giving her “wise” counsel: You can have “a normal that allows you to live and do your best work … or be exceptional and dead.” Great point, but not effective for managing symptoms. We don’t see her helping Catherine with having symptom management. This gives a poor view of therapy. The most effective therapy for mental illness is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or for difficult mood disorders, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has much success. Even our mental health coaching program, Thrive, reinforces CBT or DBT. We’ve seen many regain their lives. This therapist seemed to be providing talk therapy that obviously is not working. There is more effective therapy that really has changed people’s lives. Maybe if she were doing CBT or DBT there would be no show … because the drama would decrease.
3) Treatment vs. Recovery … Catherine is alone in her journey. Her boyfriend attempts at being supportive, but really doesn’t add value to Catherine’s life and encourages some elements of the hyper-sexuality. Catherine somehow has to survive this with medication and her talk therapy. There are incredible support organizations, including us, who focus on providing incredible support. Why isn’t this therapist helping her find more supportive community? Mental Illness Recovery is possible and the common denominator towards recovery is community. This shows only the hard and hopeless road.
Black Box was not intended to include Christian values or faith … that’s a strong factor for many, but this show is the road without faith. No moral compass. No eternal value.
Unfortunately, Black Box will only depict more destructive behaviors and lots of drama. I will tell you this … it doesn’t have to be that way! There is a much more hopeful story.
The show is vulgar, uneducated in mental illness recovery and proper treatment, and simply hopeless. It would be better if this show looses it’s audience and gets pulled. It takes us in the wrong direction about mental illness.
In closing I share the same sentiments as this tweet, “Sorry #ABC but I won’t be watching” #blackbox @veeh1.