If you are a Netflix viewer you may have recently watched Season 4 of Orange is the New Black and could not have missed the storylines with mental illness. It was not a subtle portrayal. Mental illness was everywhere.
The character who saves another inmates life was hearing voices and experiencing delusions. They gave us the back story and she was a person with mental illness who lost her job as a journalist when her mental illness started to get worse. Loly ends up homeless and eventually arrested for disorderly conduct. She gets slammed on the ground by two police officers who come upon her because people in an upscale neighborhood were complaining about her being there. The police throw her on the ground and handcuff her while calling in to dispatch how she may be “drunk” or “psychotic.” This is how she ends up in prison. The police officers obviously don’t have crisis intervention training nor mental heath first aid.
By the end of season four Loly gets locked up in the forensic psych unit for allegedly murdering someone. She starts to scream and cry while the audience is shown someone in the background who is yelling and is restrained forcefully. Everyone in the prison knows you don’t want to get sent to the “psych unit.” It does foster a bit of the stereotypical way we view inpatient psychiatric care, then again it is a prison so the psych unit might be portrayed appropriately.
The one thing that bothered me about this scenario was the fact that she had to have a mental illness and be accused of murder. Everything else was really handled so well. It is likely that a consequence of untreated severe mental illness can be joblessness and homelessness. It happens more frequently than we like to believe. But the murder part I could do without (spoiler alert: she actually didn’t do it but thinks she did).
Then there was the character Mr. Heely. He is the inmate counselor who walks into a lake with the intention of taking his own life. In just the right time he gets a phone call from work and realized Loly’s delusions about saying their was a dead man buried in the garden were actually true. By the end of the show he is voluntarily admitting himself to inpatient psychiatric care that is actually scripted quite well. The last season shows him sitting on his bed knitting – minus the knitting needles which they don’t have in a psych unit because people may use those to hurt themselves – the gist is right on the money.
The courage of him taking himself to the psych unit is amazing. One of the few men on the show and he admits himself for psychiatric care…wow! This is a little more hard to believe because it is very difficult for males to admit they have a problem let alone seek treatment. But good for the show creators to lead us in the proper direction of how it should be done.
One of the main characters is called “Crazy Eyes.” She actually had been doing quite well with her mental health until the last few episodes. But as the name implies she does have a tendency to get a little “crazy.” She gets violent after being provoked and beats someone up. She goes into a “zombie” like trance and then has a horrible accident. The way the character has been developed you know she is a short fuse away from having some type of tragic accident. But she is also vulnerable and that point is made very well.
Overall, I would have to give the creators of “Orange is the New Black” an A- in trying to tackle mental illness. They obviously put a great deal of thought into how to delicately dramatize a person’s fragile mental state. A significant amount of time was spent teaching us about hallucinations and delusions through a character’s suffering. I like how they did not shy away from any of it.
I can see how all of it might just be very close to reality.