What I Learned About Mental Health From My Favorite Fictional TV Tough Guys
Because Even Tony Soprano Was Clinically Depressed
I didn’t understand depression when I was a teenager, despite the fact I can look back and say pretty certainly I suffered from it, even then.
It was a word I thought was reserved for those who took medication and doctors had declared not well — not realizing how many people probably suffered from it, without realizing it or at least acknowledging it out loud.
Depression was something I thought people used as a crutch, a weakness I didn’t want to be associated with. It was a word I imagined my Irish, Vietnam era Father didn’t believe in. Because it was something his Irish, Great Depression era Father didn’t believe in.
To any millennial reading this who’s lucky enough to still have a relative who was alive during The Great Depression or shortly thereafter, go tell them you’re depressed — I double dog dare you. I hope you like stories about walking to school barefoot in the snow and prohibition.
To borrow a quote from Tony Soprano himself, my Father and Grandfather very much respectively are and were “The Gary Cooper — strong, silent types”. You just didn’t come home and say you were feeling depressed.
Though, considering two of my Grandfather’s children and Father’s siblings would go on to take their own lives, as productive and financially well off adults — maybe more of those conversations should’ve taken place.
The Soprano’s, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Depression
I fell in love with The Sopranos from the very first episode I watched. Though the series originally premiered five days before my twelfth birthday and I didn’t have HBO when it did, a few years later my cousins and I rented season one on VHS from Blockbuster — damn do I sound old. Anyway, I was hooked.
Once my Dad splurged for HBO, I watched the show religiously until I was caught up with the current episodes that were airing on Sunday nights.
The Sopranos isn’t just a show about a Mob boss from New Jersey. It’s a prolifically deep character study, of a type A personality who suffered from lifelong anxiety, panic attacks and depression — and never mentioned it to a soul or did anything about it until he was well into his at least late thirties.
The premiere of Season two of the show itself is called, “Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s office” — as one of the shows longest running story lines is main character and mafioso Tony Soprano’s on again, off again, dysfunctional doctor patient relationship with his “shrink” (his word) played by the amazingly talented Lorraine Bracco.
Throughout the series, we see Tony Soprano bounce in and out of therapy, question the value of both it and the medications he’s prescribed, suffer multiple panic attacks as well as be left bedridden with crippling depression — which it’s indicated runs in his family. We’re talking through a generation of mob bosses and their wives, who simply suffered from it and never did anything about it.
In the later seasons, we see Tony’s own son start to show symptoms of depression as well, before making an ill thought out attempt at trying to kill himself in an emotionally intense scene which ends in Tony holding his practically grown adult of a son in his arms, after perhaps just saving his life saying “It’s okay baby. It’s okay”.
From all of this I learned, depression doesn’t make you any less tough, in fact standing up to it and talking about it with almost anyone is the bravest thing you can do. If you never do anything about it, anxiety and depression will be two of the toughest opponents you ever face and may eventually kill you — or even worse, make your life so miserable you wish you were dead or take your own life. Which is something I’ve seen happen in real life, more times than I care to count. All I know is neither — nor whatever else is going on with you — has to be something you suffer from silently. Tony didn’t.
“Fixing” the Trauma and Anarchy of our Pasts
Although maybe no show I loved as much as I did The Sopranos touched on mental health issues as deeply, there’s traces and implications found sprinkled throughout many of my favorite crime dramas, including FX’s Sons of Anarchy and Showtime’s Ray Donovan.
For anyone who isn’t up to date on either show but plans on eventually watching them or catching up, now would be a good time to maybe skip a paragraph or two or stop reading. Spoiler alerts ahead for both.
Sons of Anarchy will go down as one of my all time favorite shows, as I thought the writing and acting were both in a league of their own.
The transition we see the protagonist Jax Teller, eventual president of The Sons of Anarchy motor cycle club, go through from the pilot to the finale is tragically compelling television and storytelling. Creator Kurt Sutter deserves a true nod, as does actor Charlie Hunnam who played the role of Jax.
If everything Jax Teller seen and went through in life, wasn’t enough to leave him at least slightly traumatized — then I don’t know what would have been.
From having his Mother reveal she was brutally gang raped by his sworn enemies, to finding out his Step Father tried to not only have his wife killed — but most likely tried to have his Father killed decades earlier as well, before eventually taking the seat that would have been otherwise rightfully his and raising Jax as his own. His best friend is also later murdered in prison as he watches, a sentence and death he blames himself for.
Though I don’t believe the word depression or trauma is ever once said by Jax Teller in the show ( at least not in reference to himself), the series ends with him essentially taking his own life. Though he had been sentenced to death by his own club and was sure to die anyhow, one could argue those who are in good mental health don’t kill themselves.
Ray Donovan too, is a tough guy type who clearly suffers from the trauma and stress of a deeply disturbed past where both he and his brother were sexually abused by a priest they trusted, as kids — among a wide variety of other things.
In the middle seasons of the series, Ray begins attending anger management classes as well as eventually one on one therapy where he is told he is a deeply traumatized individual who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What I learned from Ray Donovan and Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller about trauma and PTSD, whether diagnosed or not, is it can destroy the toughest of people and consume entire lives if we try to ignore it, not talk about it or keep it a secret.
Above all else, what I learned from my favorite fictional TV tough guys about mental health is how important of an issue it is and why it’s something we — especially as men — need to be more open and honest about. There’s no pride to be taken in suffering silently. Because, who the f*ck was Gary Cooper, anyway?