‘Winnie the Pooh’ and depression, too
Portrayal of mental illness in cartoons beneficial to kids’ understanding, acceptance
Cartoon television shows have become one of the basic methods of building a strong foundation in education, morality and kindness for children whose lives are increasingly spent in front of screens. Programs like “Dora the Explorer” and “Little Einsteins” — dripping in politically correctness — use simplified messages to impart important messages about language, art, music and reasoning skills to children. But beyond these goals, there is a growing trend of working to teach young viewers how to appropriately respond to and respect people trying to overcome mental illness.
A sarcastic article published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2000 detailed a study conducted by psychologists on the mental health of Winnie the Pooh and his band of woodland friends. Pooh has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Piglet struggles with generalized anxiety disorder. Obviously, Eeyore is depressed. Tigger’s “recurrent pattern of risk-taking behaviors” suggest abnormally high impulsive tendencies.
Interestingly, the article draws no concrete conclusions on the illness that affects Rabbit. The mentally ill are the good guys, the heroic characters the children come to adore. Furthermore, all of the characters accept each other for who they are. If Pooh asks for help climbing a tree for honey, Piglet and Tigger will no doubt be there to catch him when he falls from a branch.
The characters’ illnesses don’t negatively affect the way children perceive the show, no matter if they all act ridiculously, like Tigger, or passively, like Eeyore. Their mutual respect and caring for each other on-screen, no matter the relative strangeness of everyday life, shows children that neglecting the mentally ill is not acceptable.
“The Fairly OddParents” address the issue more indirectly. Central protagonist Timmy Turner may not be mentally ill, but the environment he lives in is hardly conducive to mental health.
His parents constantly ignore his pleas for a kinder babysitter. His evil babysitter, Vicky, constantly yells at him and pushes him around. His teacher, Mr. Crocker, berates him for being a terrible student.
In reality, Timmy is being quite heavily abused — he’s blamed for trivial things, yelled at incessantly, and called names. He’s even physically abused by Vicky in virtually every episode. These things all communicate to Timmy that he is worthless and isn’t capable of living correctly — clearly creating an unstable, non-supportive living environment.
And though Timmy does not express any symptoms of mental illness explicitly, his popularity as a character despite a traumatic upbringing offers an important lesson for children who are so often unable to control their own environments.
Kids are naturally accepting of differences — blind to negative associations adults so regularly attach to them. Programs that portray mentally ill characters, or characters like Timmy who are potentially at risk for mental disorders, appeal to this innocence innate in children and strengthen it. In doing so, they work to reduce the stigma and fear that surrounds mental illness.
Inspiration for this article comes from Education graduate student Conor Gannon, who recently published an article on his blog describing how accurately and eloquently Disney’s latest hit, “Frozen,” portrays depression.