Assembling a list of stories that openly discuss mental health inevitably proves difficult because of the wide-ranging spectrum of conditions and types of neurodiversity—any such list is bound to be subjective, to some degree. Everyone’s experience differs, and it’s important to understand how one individual’s truth can be valid even when it doesn’t align perfectly with yours.
In other words, everyone’s mental health journey is their own. Nobody walks the same path. Two people with anxiety can manifest it in completely different ways. Stories, however, can act as a unifying force among those of us with anxiety, depression, and the many types of neurodivergence. Across a number of narrative formats, creators are tackling the challenges presented by mental health and teaching us to better understand ourselves. These stories tell us we’re not alone.
I have a long way to go. I’m 30 years old, and I’m only now beginning to understand my own anxiety. I cling to art and stories that portray mental health struggles. I latch onto these tales and do my best to absorb their lessons. The five works I’ve listed here have helped me come to terms with my anxiety, and I hope they might do the same for others.
Be prepared for some light spoilers for the works discussed below…
Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune
TJ Klune’s Under The Whispering Door deals with death, grief, and loss. He balances those themes with grace and poise, allowing the reader to explore them on their own terms.
Beneath the principal themes, however, there’s a subtler throughline of regret and learning to love oneself. When Wallace Price dies and joins Hugo, Mei, Nelson, and Apollo at Charon’s Crossing—a tea shop acting as a crossroads between life and the beyond—he looks back at his existence and begins an introspective journey. During his stay with the residents and patrons of the tea shop, Wallace learns about himself through his relationships with others.
I read Under The Whispering Door at a nexus point in my mental health journey. I felt off and uncertain about what to do next. I had inklings of ideas—I could ask friends if therapy helped them? Start it myself? Read a book about anxiety?—but I didn’t feel ready to move forward. TJ Klune’s work and Wallace Price’s evolution led me to a powerful conclusion: vulnerability sparks growth. Through Wallace, I learned to be vulnerable with the friends and family I trust most. I learned that those vulnerable moments can help me redefine my perception of myself. And I learned that asking for help at the precise moment it scares you most will usually result in love and compassion from the people who support you.
Under The Whispering Door wasn’t the only reason I sought help for myself. But reading the book taught me that my perception of self shouldn’t be rigid, unchanging. It’s malleable, and Klune’s dark, charming, serious, heartwarming tale (it’s all those things, I promise) spurred me to seek help in understanding the various qualities that comprise my own identity, anxiety and all.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
In the adventure game Chicory, you name the adorable dog avatar after your favorite food. You soon discover that your character (for me it was Toffee) works as a janitor for the Wielder, Chicory. As a Wielder, Chicory carries a massive magical paintbrush and colors the world with her creativity. But one day, the colors disappear and Toffee finds Chicory in a depressive state, unable to shoulder the responsibilities of being the Wielder. Toffee takes the brush and sets out to cure the world of its colorless affliction.
Chicory plays like a top-down Zelda game and looks like a coloring book. The gameplay requires Toffee to paint the screen to solve puzzles and access new areas.
Throughout Chicory, Toffee experiences self-doubt. Is she meant to be the Wielder? Is she capable of helping others solve their problems? Can she make time for herself? Does anybody really care about her? These tough questions emerge both literally in conversations with NPCs and figuratively, manifesting as monstrous bosses to fight.
Chicory has a charming way of grappling with truly difficult concepts. At various points in the game, NPCs will ask Toffee if she’s taking time for herself. They’ll say they’re proud of her or impressed by her work, but she doesn’t believe them. There are numerous mental-health-related lessons to be learned. Because of its artistic subject matter, though, I found the most comfort in the game’s messages of self-worth.
As a writer, I’m constantly finding reasons not to create. I tell myself the product won’t be good, despite “good” being an ill-defined measure of what others think. I convince myself “nobody will read this” despite (1) knowing full well people read and respond to my published work, and (2) there’s nothing wrong with creating something just for myself.
By the end of Chicory, I felt reinvigorated and ready to create. The game equipped me to silence the anxious voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough. It helped me understand my own value and respect what I bring to the table for me. Writing for an audience is still a challenge. Baring my soul on the page still feels like I’m putting myself out there to be criticized. But Chicory told me to value the worth of my work on my terms and to avoid letting the anxiety halt the process before it truly begins.
The Legend Of Korra
I love Korra. It’s an extension of a world that’s immensely important to me, and at times it offers lessons that Avatar never explored.
While Aang feared failure because of his sense that everyone was relying on him, Korra fears failure because she doesn’t know how to handle it, mentally and emotionally. When she nearly dies at the hands of Zaheer, the failure haunts her. She carries the weight of her own perceived worthlessness and sinks into a spiral of depression.
Some days, my anxiety peaks when I remember a stupid mistake I made as a teenager or a dumb thing I said years ago. I can remember and relive all of my errors and stumbles as though they occurred yesterday, and they flood my psyche, overwhelming any hope I have of celebrating my accomplishments and feeling good about myself.
In season four, which chronicles the aftermath of her battle with Zaheer and The Red Lotus, Korra sees the world wholly through the lens of her own failure. A shadowy simulacrum of her self-doubt haunts her, and she constantly flashes back to her near-death and the near-destruction of the entire Avatar cycle. She is unable to contextualize her failures in light of her myriad successes—defeating Amon, learning to airbend, and forging meaningful friendships.
Dealing with failure is a natural, necessary step to growth. Allowing mistakes to consume you will only stall your progress. Korra learns that the hard way, struggling until she opens her mind to the possibility of moving past her biggest failure. ”Moving past” doesn’t mean forgetting, though—Korra taught me to frame my failures as stepping stones. Every mistake, success, or lateral move can still contribute to progress as long as you’re willing to learn from it.
Bo Burnham’s Inside
When I watched Inside for the first time, I felt understood and represented. Burnham’s quasi-stand-up-special shatters the norms of the format, eschewing simple jokes and speaking for the internet-addled masses in the midst of quarantine. Burnham lampoons the systems seeking to define us and control our time, bringing to light the malicious methodologies that corporate juggernauts employ to strengthen their stranglehold on our free time and our psyches.
You could argue that Inside careens toward the nihilistic, and that’s probably a solid take. But a freeing sensation emerges when you see your biggest worries and daily panics manifested onscreen and addressed over the course of a single, intense long-form comedy special. Inside instantly pervaded pop culture (and still does, to an extent) because the fearless Burnham made these struggles visceral and real.
Across multiple viewings, Inside taught me it’s okay to acknowledge the external sources of my anxiety. Every little thing isn’t my fault. In fact, sometimes the deck is so stacked against you, there’s little hope of playing the next hand unscathed. The forces at play in society can and do work against the individual by grouping us into data sets and priming us for a cycle of constant consumption. I didn’t ask for this, nor do I want it now. Feeling anxious about it is a supremely valid response.
I still have to trust myself and my support network to help fuel my personal growth. But Bo Burnham’s Inside helped me realize that I’m not wrong for feeling, and I’m not the sole origin of my own mental struggles.
What could’ve been a silly little show about an American football coach mentoring an English soccer team instead became the breakout feel-good hit that is Ted Lasso. Bolstered by a masterful cast and sharp writing staff, Ted Lasso earnestly makes an undeniable case for working to be the best possible version of yourself.
Ever a people-pleaser, Coach Lasso sees the needs of others and puts them before his own. He fosters growth on an individual and team level, pushing everyone he interacts with to “Believe” (thanks to a sign above his office) and be better.
But Ted’s own inner struggles soon become apparent. When you focus only on the growth of others, you leave yourself behind in the dust. Supporting people you believe in can be honest, fulfilling work. But it can still be work, which means it takes effort. Expend too much of that effort, and you risk burning yourself out. Ted experiences this firsthand. He covers the pain of his divorce, being an ocean away from his son, and other painful and traumatic experiences with his upbeat effervescence and his dedication to others. It all comes to a head when he starts having panic attacks. He shirks therapy, suspicious of the transactional nature of mental health care.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was taught to be nice at all costs. It’s a valuable lesson, but it can also be a slippery slope into “do anything you possibly can to help others no matter what.” Sliding down that slope shaped me into a bona fide people-pleaser, afraid to say no and unable to focus on myself until the needs of everyone around me were satisfied. My journey mirrored Ted’s in recent years. I began to understand that there’s a fine balance to be struck between helping others and caring for yourself. My friends will still care about me if I can’t fulfill their every request. My family will still love me if I have to miss a party because I’m sick. The resentful, chiding narrative I had conditioned myself to believe is objectively untrue. The more I care about myself, the more capable I am of caring for others. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, but watching Ted Lasso went a long way in helping me come to that realization.
Over time, Ted gives in and allows himself the room to grow. Just as he has done for others, he allows himself space to bloom, bathing in the light of self-improvement through acknowledging hard truths about himself. His growth includes embracing therapy and understanding it as a form of asking for help from someone who is professionally trained to give it. I had to overcome the same concerns and admit that I don’t need to be the only one in charge of overcoming my anxiety. Ted Lasso helped me muster up the gumption to trust others to help me.
I Hope This Helps
Whether you’re just starting to learn about self-care and mental health or you’re in the midst of a long journey of self-growth, I hope this helps, and that in some small way my experience, and the works I’ve listed above, can help you come to terms with your own struggles. It’s okay to need help. It’s okay to ask for it. And it’s okay to be scared. Understanding our mental and emotional needs takes time and dedication, but stories can help us—and make us feel less alone—along the way.
I encourage you to think about the stories that impact you. As I mentioned above, everyone’s path is different. Thinking about your most cherished stories—the ones that shaped and continue to shape who you are as a person—can be a freeing experience; if you’d like, please feel free to share some of them in the comments below.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.