Ted Lasso depicts mental illness in a realistic light
Last month, I reviewed the frightening portrayal of psychosis in this summer’s most popular TV show, Stranger Things. Unfortunately, way too much of this unrealistic, stigma-reinforcing content has flooded our media over the years. But Ted Lasso proved that successful franchises can be built by treating mental illness for what it is—difficult and personal and affecting us all.
People watching the show immediately fall in love with Jason Sudeikis’ main character. Ted is cheerful, positive, and kind to everyone. Throughout the first season, we accompany him as he moves from Kansas to London to begin coaching soccer, a sport he doesn’t know anything about. Nothing seems to faze him—nasty fans, critical reporters, difficult players, even an owner secretly scheming for him to fail. However, we realize that something is wrong underneath the happy surface when Ted suffers a panic attack, seemingly provoked by his impending divorce.
But like most everyone, he hides his pain away, hoping that others won’t notice. And few do, so the audience is left with the mistaken belief that his dissolving marriage is to blame for Ted’s anxiety. However, the panic attacks continue into the second season where we meet new team therapist, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. With her help, the audience slowly begins to appreciate the ghosts that haunt Ted. As it turns out, his father died of suicide when Ted was only 16, and he has never dealt with the poignant fallout from the ordeal.
And he doesn’t want to. From the outset, we witness the always affable Ted offend Dr. Fieldstone at every turn. He resists the idea of hiring her, and then, after she starts, he handles her with a level of disdain and disrespect out of place for his character. Unfortunately, many people treat “shrinks” in this same manner, questioning their worth and ridiculing their profession. Dr. Fieldstone weathers his jabs like an experienced fighter, waiting patiently for him to open up. When he finally does, the scene plays true to anyone who has gone through therapy. Ted starts down the difficult path of processing his past trauma.
Admirably, the show doesn’t end on the uplifting note, with patient and caregiver celebrating their emotional breakthrough. Instead, it ratchets up the reality, this time highlighting the stigma that accompanies any mental health condition. Someone leaks that the head coach is suffering recurring panic attacks, and suddenly Ted’s entire credibility is thrown into question. TV pundits call him “not fit to coach” and argue that the team needs a “captain whose brain works.” People had questioned his experience before, but now they come after his competence and character.
Meanwhile, Ted and everyone around him not only anticipate this behavior but accept it. This is especially accurate; we all recognize that society will see us differently if a mental health issue comes to light. So, we hide our troubles away, just like Ted, burying them deep until we can’t function anymore. We do this for a reason—the repercussions of the stigma can do genuine damage. Why risk certain discrimination?
Ironically, however, every single person faces challenges related to brain health. If Ted Lasso were real, each of those other characters would have some mental health issue of their own, and they’d be silently grateful that their secrets hadn’t been revealed. That’s what makes the stigma so frustrating and destructive. We all deal with this, and yet we don’t want to admit it. We’re afraid to talk about it and to ask for help. And the denial makes our challenges that much more difficult.
That’s why shows like Ted Lasso are so important. He enters so many homes, befriending all who watch. We like Ted; we root for Ted. We quietly hope that we can act more like him the next day—joyful, friendly, and energetic. So, when Ted admits to suffering inside, it might be okay for us to admit it, too.
Each character like this helps in changing the narrative. Each story that advocates for accepting mental illness with understanding and compassion rather than ridicule and fear moves us forward. We need more of them, so many more of them. When sharing memories of his father’s death, Ted sobs, “Life is hard, real hard.” And it is, but if we’re honest and ask for support, we can live many of our days in happiness. Just like Ted. So, always remember the profound wisdom he shares at the end of season one: