Mental Health Advocates Will Miss <em>The Sopranos</em>

As someone who travels the U.S. speaking to nearly 100,000 young adults a year about mental illness, I givecredit for interweaving mental health issues into nearly every episode.
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I don't know that I've ever wanted someone to be able to parallel park a car more than I wanted Meadow Soprano to do last night. And I am sure I am not the only one who thought I must have lost my cable during the brief 10 seconds (which easily could've been an hour) of black screen before the final credits! A large part of me really wanted to see how this series would finally end, but a larger part of me is sad to see The Sopranos go.

As someone who travels the U.S. speaking to nearly 100,000 young adults every year about the stigma surrounding mental illness, I have to give The Sopranos credit for consistently and creatively interweaving common mental health issues into nearly every episode, creating awareness in a way that most mental health organizations could only hope to do. I am not saying there were a lot of positive examples of recovery or endless signs of hope in the context of this series, but from Tony's panic attack in the very first episode up until last night's finale, The Sopranos was able to convey an extremely important message about mental health to millions of hard-to-reach people in a cool and fairly realistic way. Taking someone who many of us came to view as the toughest of the tough guys, and repeatedly putting him in a chair where he would talk to someone about his innermost thoughts and feelings has, at the very least, led many of us to consider these types of issues in our own lives.

While I don't think that people should take away a negative example from the show (let's face it, he was a poster boy for murder, infidelity, anger and the like), I do think Tony Soprano provided a very positive example by showing that it's OK to be proactive about one's mental health -- that it's OK to talk openly about these issues and examine one's past. I mean, Tony got so used to therapy that even after Dr. Melfi controversially abandoned him, he couldn't hold back from confiding in A.J.'s therapist about his own past.

The Sopranos' immediate and extended family also dealt with mental health issues in a manner not all that different from most American families. Everyone watched Meadow go through her "phases of rebellion" and eventually turn out to be ok. Most recently it was A.J. who has been struggling with severe depression, a disorder that affects a lot of high school and college students. A.J. discovered that self-medicating with alcohol, promiscuous sex, and otherwise living a destructive lifestyle are only distractions from dealing with the realities of the disorder. His suicide attempt, like so many others, was a wakeup call to everyone. The series painfully displayed what most young adults who attempt suicide are really feeling, which is that they don't actually WANT to die, but they simply can't handle living with the consequences of depression. As A.J. struggles to find a way out, he inundates himself with negative news, contemplates running away to join the army and for the most part, isn't too much of a joy to be around. But no matter what he does, it's important to note that his family never abandons him. Sure, they say inappropriate things at times, or may try to push their own agendas, but it seems to come from a place of caring more than anything else. The discussions about the history of mental illness on Tony's side of the family -- the guilt, the blame and the fear -- are almost constant in many homes dealing with these issues. I never thought I would say this, but it was somewhat refreshing to see a family like the Sopranos -- as dysfunctional as they were -- bringing these important issues to the forefront. Especially for the millions of people who have been dealing with similar emotional difficulties, but because of the unfortunate stigma that still tends to surround the issue of mental illness, have been suffering in silence.

The Sopranos first aired at a time when mental health issues were just starting to be frequently portrayed in all types of media. A time when we casually saw advertisements for psychiatric medications or other related storylines in various films and TV shows. The Sopranos' accurate depictions of the nature of mental disorders across nearly every age bracket should be commended, and perhaps was part of the reason why so many of us found ourselves surprisingly able to relate to these characters on so many levels. We can only hope another series will come along with the same type of creative, accessible themes. In the meantime, all of the invaluable mental health organizations and advocates out there will continue our challenging work of trying to discourage the stigma surrounding these issues, in the hopes that the 66% of people who typically don't feel comfortable seeking help for emotional problems will finally begin to feel more comfortable doing so. With the right type of counseling and treatment, it is possible to live a normal, fulfilling life -- there is no need for people to be suffering in silence.

Thanks again, Sopranos..."don't stop believing!"

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