How “Grey’s Anatomy” and “To The Bone” Are Changing the Narrative On Mental Health

This article was written by Anushka Shorewala.

The World Health Organization believes that 1 in 4 people, or 25% percent of the world, are affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Yet, despite how common these disorders are, mental illnesses have still been highly stigmatized throughout history.

Even at the present time, many people are afraid to share their experiences with mental illnesses due to the fear of being rejected by loved ones. However, as societies progress, fortunately, celebrities as well as numerous television shows and movie characters are becoming more open in portraying mental health disorders, thereby inspiring others to share their own experiences.

Two particularly noteworthy examples of mental illness representation in the media can be found in Grey’s Anatomy and To the Bone.

Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy is a famous medical drama known for its amazing love stories, wonderful friendships, and of course, groundbreaking surgeries. But another important role this show has taken in the lives of the viewers is raising awareness about taboo issues in society, one of them being mental health illness. Not only does this medical drama expose viewers to mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and bipolar disorder, but it also teaches people to ask for help, accept themselves, and also advocate for themselves.

Dr. Hunt, a trauma surgeon in Grey’s Anatomy who also served in the military as an army doctor, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after coming back from the war in Afghanistan. Initially, he was hiding the condition from his girlfriend and co-workers, thus demonstrating how many people silently suffer in order to avoid the stigmas surrounding mental illness. As the series continues, however, Hunt begins to acknowledge the pain he initially tried to hide, learning to accept help from those he loves and, ultimately, receive professional help. In fact, many scenes are dedicated to his time in therapy as he begins to navigate how PTSD affects his life, including his ability to work, sleep, and maintain close relationships.

Hopefully, Hunt’s storyline helped Grey’s Anatomy’s viewers understand that PTSD is a legitimate condition, as well as that people struggling with the disorder deserve to receive proper help and, by doing so, have their suffering alleviated.

On the other hand, Dr. Bailey, a general surgeon who struggles with her diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), shows viewers that mental illnesses should not be your whole story but rather just a piece of it. After accidentally transferring a life-threatening virus to her patients during surgery, Bailey begins to develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors surrounding the cleaning of her hands and surgical equipment. Even though it was the mistake of the medical manufacturers of her surgical gloves that caused the fatalities, she develops OCD out of the fear that a similar accident could happen in the future.

The compulsive need to conduct certain repetitive tasks makes performing surgery difficult, causing her to take a short break from surgery and find professional help to cope with the stress caused by her disorder. Despite having OCD, Dr. Bailey continues to be an awe-inducing surgeon and soon becomes the first female Chief of Surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. In the end, Bailey’s tremendous success demonstrates how mental illness does not have to permanently hinder people’s ability to live a normal life and that good outcomes arise when people ask for help.

To The Bone

To The Bone is a movie about a 20-year-old named Ellen who struggles with anorexia nervosa and seeks treatment in order to address her low and potentially fatal body weight. This eating disorder is found in people who are afraid to gain weight. Due to a distorted perception about their bodies, people with anorexia nervosa try to control their caloric intake through eating too little, exercising too much, using laxatives, and other methods.

Anorexia is a mental illness that is commonly misunderstood. Some people even think it is a lifestyle people choose. That is why it is important to learn that anorexia nervosa may appear to be about food or weight, but oftentimes, it is a disorder that serves to control and cope with emotional problems.

Throughout the film, it is clear that Ellen’s family doesn’t understand what she is going through, specifically why she can’t eat. And even though family members may never fully understand eating disorders or other mental illnesses, this film highlights that there are professionals and peers who can still help.

Although Ellen initially rejects her treatment plan, living alongside the other patients helps her realize that eating disorders often arise as a means to deal with other underlying struggles. What is more, she also learns that she can trust her peers and other professionals with her emotions as well as the truth behind her eating disorder. Through these conversations with her family, peers, and professionals, Ellen begins to confront and navigate the emotional issues that had laid dormant.

To The Bone shows viewers a different side of anorexia as well as of various other eating disorders. It brings awareness to this disease known as anorexia nervosa and, by doing so, shows us that anorexia is not a choice but rather a struggle that often becomes an addiction.

These are some of the characters that have propelled the topic of mental health into the spotlight and, thus, contributed to the slow yet steady removal of the stigma surrounding mental health. Certainly, these storylines provide viewers with the courage and support needed to come forth and share their own stories of mental health.

After all, as James Baldwin put it, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

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