New ABC TV Show Shows Promise in Discussing Mental Health
As a counseling professor with Counseling@Northwestern and licensed counselor, I’m always interested in watching how TV shows portray mental health so that I can use popular media as an educational tool with my graduate students and clients. ABC’s new drama A Million Little Things is off to a promising start as a way to help people have conversations about mental health.
A Million Little Things chronicles the ups and downs of a group of friends in Boston who met by chance while stuck in an elevator. The first episode introduces viewers to members of the group, who are each encountering realistic life challenges such as closing a business deal, dealing with a possible cancer recurrence, substance abuse and recovery, and infidelity. The show quickly jolted audiences as they witnessed a character named John’s suicide.
Needless to say, people may feel triggered while watching this show. However, ABC does a great job of highlighting conversations that so many people are afraid to have due to the stigma related to mental health, as well as the underlying importance of friendship in those conversations. Friendship is, “being able to have the hard conversations and willing to listen—to a million little things,” John (portrayed by Ron Livingston) is seen saying in a video his friend captured during a Bruins game.
A “hard conversation” might be defined differently depending on what people are experiencing at a given time in their lives. One important point the show emphasized is that people around us are hurting and many times they feel utterly alone and unable to express their feelings.
Another character Rome Howard (portrayed by Romany Malco) shares his story of attempted suicide with the group of friends.
“If you wouldn’t have called to tell me about John [his suicide] I would be dead right now … Sometimes I feel so hopeless … it’s like I can’t breathe. Maybe if I stopped [breathing] it wouldn’t hurt so much,” he said.
During the episode, the group of friends were seen interacting with clinical psychologist Maggie (portrayed by Allison Miller). Maggie explained: “Sometimes people don’t know their friends are hurting. Sometimes people lose site of the horizon.” Unfortunately, when Rome approached Maggie for her business card, he held back the real reason for wanting to talk as he saw his friends approaching.
Viewers are probably wondering why there is still so much stigma related to seeking mental health services (you can read about myths and facts about counseling). The reality is that people still view counseling as a weakness. And being able to handle stressful and emotional situations on your own is often associated with strength.
“You are stronger than all of us combined,” one character said to John’s widow.
But what if she, or anybody else in a situation like hers, doesn’t want to be perceived as “strong?” What does strong even mean? What if she wants to be vulnerable and feel the spectrum of feelings that are associated with grief?
As a professional in the field and one who advocates for better mental health services, I can tell you that seeking counseling is a strength. It takes a lot for people to reach out for help. Rome demonstrated the internal struggles one faces through depression, attempted suicide, seeking help, and confiding in friends. But rather than expressing admiration for being “strong,” we should admire people for their resilience and willingness to reach out for help.
The importance of resilience is captured by male breast cancer survivor Gary (portrayed by James Roday). Gary has to visit his doctor every three months to learn whether or not he has a recurrence. Perhaps it’s the high anxiety associated with uncertainty of his health that eliminates his filter when he bluntly told his friends, “We don’t talk. The very sad truth is that we don’t know each other.”
The scene begs the question to audiences: Do you really know your friends? Do you know how to talk with your friends about mental health? In Gary’s case, feeling like part of a neglected group with a chronic medical issue might have decreased his tolerance for insignificant small talk. He felt the need to be real with his friends and expects the same from them. That encouragement to have honest conversations with each other saved Rome’s life. But audiences don’t have to wait for life changing moments to begin having these conversations.
Overall, A Million Little Things has potential to inspire people to talk about mental health and to decrease stigma related to seeking counseling.
However, even though the writers did a good job of examining difficult life issues, they didn’t get everything perfect. At one point, they introduced an affair between two main characters who then assume they might be the cause of John’s suicide. This storyline was an unnecessary addition to the show and was very distracting to the plot. It is unfair to the viewers and to people who have been impacted by suicide to assume the characters can predict a reason a person chooses suicide. In fact, a difficult aspect of experiencing the suicide of a loved one is the seemingly endless questions.
Some questions people often ask after a suicide that the characters of A Million Little Things also asked include:
- Why did he do this?
- It makes no sense.
- Someone has to explain this to me.
- I can’t accept this.
- How did we know he didn’t just fall?
- It was just a normal day at the office.
- This doesn’t add up.
- Why didn’t he just tell his wife he was hurting?
- It kills me that I wasn’t there for you.
- I can’t find a reason for this.
- Why didn’t he get help?
- How could I not know?
- How could I not see it?
- I had no idea he was depressed.
- Maybe I could have done something.
Wrestling with these questions is hard. Experiencing grief after a death looks different for each person and talking with a counselor, either in individual settings or in group settings, can help you understand the frustration and sadness accompanied by grief and loss.
Take a page or two out of A Million Little Things’ playbook and express your feelings to someone, check in on your friends and family, take time to enjoy life, and share this article. It might save a life.
- National Suicide Prevention Helpline
- Crisis Text Line
- American Cancer Society
- National Breast Cancer Foundation—Male Breast Cancer
- Facts About Breast Cancer in Men from the American Cancer Society
- UChicago Medicine—Breast Cancer
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- American Counseling Association
- Open to Hope
Citation for this content: Northwestern University's online Master of Arts in Counseling Program.