Litchfield Penitentiary, a New York women’s prison, has some pretty terrible mental health care. Like most prisons—and many other institutions—it has few resources and is overwhelmed by its clients’ problems; but these inmates, uniquely, have millions of viewers, because Litchfield is the fictional setting of the wildly popular Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black (OITNB). This season, mental health issues figure largely in the storyline, and OITNB addresses (for example) the issue of people with depression in need of human connections and talking therapy.
Litchfield’s longstanding psychotherapist is a sexist, racist, white male, Sam Healy, lacking in compassion and empathy. Season 3 brings Litchfield a dynamic new therapist, Berdie Rogers, a confident, passionate, black woman. To help the inmates express themselves, she starts up a drama class. Healy, of course, hates her.
Rogers and Healy are both treating the voluble Brooke Soso, imprisoned for protesting, who begins to experience depression.
We’re first clued in when a visiting friend exclaims: “All the rest of us, we wouldn’t be able to survive in prison. But look at you! You’re doing it! It is so cool.”
Disgusted, Soso replies, “Prison is not cool. Being here is not cool… I feel stupid for being in here. And stupid for thinking it wouldn’t ruin my life and that it would be OK. And I’m not surviving, I’m just existing.”
Soso suddenly can’t stop telling people about her mental state. She alienates the other inmates and can’t make friends. After getting bullied out of a religious group, she bonds with another inmate, Poussey, who is also depressed and additionally, is an alcoholic. When Soso goes to Healy to ask for help, he hands her a prescription for antidepressants, without any offer to talk. However, Berdie Rogers validates her depression and suggests the option of foregoing medication. They set up regular time to talk, and Soso seems relieved and understood.
A drama-class incident sidelines Rogers, so Soso is forced to return to Healy, who offers her the prescription again. Then Poussey finds Soso unconscious in the library, having overdosed on diphenhydramine. Poussey and her friends help Soso come to; in order to keep her out of the terrifying psych ward, everyone keeps the incident a secret.
From then on, Poussey’s friends watch over Soso, who finds the strength to tell Healy (who wants her to testify against Rogers): “You’re really bad at your job, Mr. Healy. Like, really bad. You make me feel worse about myself every time we talk. Berdie helped me.”
Every part of Soso’s story this season emphasizes the importance of talk therapy and human support. Maybe Soso would have felt better with medication, but that’s not all she wanted; she wanted a person to care about her. Talking to Rogers, Soso keeps her head above water; without her, she almost drowns herself. Poussey’s lifeline of friendship is enough (barely) to keep her going.
Orange Is the New Black is a wildly popular show, not least because characters from many different backgrounds are dealing with real issues in compelling ways. Depression and suicide are huge problems in the U. S., and it’s good to see a complex and realistic portrayal of the vital importance of therapy, how it can be abused, and how it can benefit those in need.
Images: screenshots from Netflix.