Warning: This article contains spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Since its debut season, the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has somehow been able to combine musical comedy with frank depictions of mental illness. It's a concept that's easy to take for granted now, but in season three, the show doubles down on these tactics and pushes viewers to consider yet another facet of mental illness that we don't talk about enough: diagnosis.
Of course, the show has never shied away from protagonist Rebecca Bunch's mental health history. In the first episode alone, we see her having a panic attack and spilling her anxiety medication on the sidewalk. Throughout the first two seasons, the show's quirky, catchy musical numbers point to her symptoms of anxiety and depression, with lyrics like, "I'm in a sexy French depression," and, "Maybe we should have a session, address your anxiety and depression."
But in the third season, the show puts Rebecca's festering mental health problems even more directly into the spotlight when she hits rock bottom and attempts suicide, after which a doctor diagnoses her with a disorder we don't often talk about, let alone see depicted in mainstream media: borderline personality disorder.
As the shame surrounding mental health begins to lessen, anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental illnesses that people deal with, have come to the forefront of the conversation. But borderline personality disorder, in all its complexity, has remained largely stigmatized — and that's what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's portrayal so daring. But it isn't just that the show tackles such a difficult issue; it's that it does so with care. Rather than writing off Rebecca's diagnosis as the solution to her problems that she initially thinks it will be, the show explores how a person reconfigures their lives to recover from — or live with — a wholly "new" mental illness.
BPD is a complex, often-misunderstood illness, something that the show hints at when it points out just how long it took for her to even get the diagnosis, after years of being told that she was suffering from a combination of other illnesses. Like Rebecca, many people who suffer from BPD (like Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson) can go through multiple diagnoses before actually getting the proper one.
It isn't just that the show dares to tackle a difficult issue; it's that it does so with care.
"Often BPD can be misunderstood as depression, anxiety, or even bi-polar disorder," says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City. Because depression and anxiety can be symptoms of borderline, he says, those symptoms can be mistaken as the issues themselves instead of warning signs of something else — just as they were shown to be in Rebecca's case.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, of course, isn't the only show that's dealing with mental health issues in an honest, nonjudgmental way. Along with shows like Lady Dynamite, Jessica Jones, and You're The Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is part of a small movement in television that's taking on mental illness with sensitivity, and doing that often involves depicting what it's like to actually get a diagnosis for a mental illness.
"Diagnosis is complicated," Lundquist says. "In many cases, it can bring stigma and overdetermine how an individual relates to him or herself. In other instances, it's life-changing."
We see this play out in the show when Rebecca is overcome with joy and relief over the prospect of receiving a new diagnosis, and then when she immediately rejects her doctor's belief that she has BPD, telling her friend, "I read two-and-a-half sentences about [borderline personality disorder], and they were the worst sentences ever."
Ultimately, as Lundquist says, getting a diagnosis for a mental health disorder is complicated — as much as it can be a relief to better understand yourself and what you're going through, it can also be difficult to navigate living with something so unfamiliar, especially when it's a disorder as stigmatized as BPD is.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, thankfully, doesn't pull any punches in depicting those growing pains. In the episodes following Rebecca's diagnosis, we see her grapple with how to break out of old patterns, and she even ends things with a boyfriend (something she says she's "never done before") to prioritize her recovery. In other words, the show makes it clear that recovery doesn't happen overnight. As Rebecca would say, "The situation is a lot more nuanced than that."
Learning to live with a mental illness is an ongoing process often filled with uncomfortable realizations and setbacks. And if this third season is anything to go by, the show won't be afraid to keep portraying what that actually looks like.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are an LGBTQ person thinking about suicide, please call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.