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What 'Orange Is The New Black' Gets Right About Depression

06/22/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
Jojo Whilden/Netflix

This post contains spoilers.

When I saw Brook Soso start to fall apart on Season 3 of Netflix's Orange is the New Black, I knew exactly what was happening to her. Her constant feelings of isolation and loneliness; the inescapable fear that no one likes her or cares about her; that desperate look in her eyes crying out for help and attention. I know, because I've suffered from depression on and off since I was a child. And I know because, like Soso's character, I've also been locked in an institution and forced to deal with mental illness without the support that I needed.

Before this season, Soso wasn't a major character on the show. She was portrayed as a fairly one-dimensional, loud-mouthed hippie who no one -- including viewers -- particularly liked. But Orange is the New Black loves to turn our first impressions on their heads and offer surprising depth to formerly irritating characters.

We soon see that Soso is having trouble fitting in because of her constant need to talk. She's rejected by people she thought were her friends and gets ignored or teased by the others she reaches out to. Loneliness and depression often go hand-in-hand. For Soto, the unfulfilled need and desire for human connection became so great that it brought on a bout of clinical depression that engulfed everything. The hopelessness of being in prison certainly didn't help, either.

Seeing Soso curled up in her bed, staring at the wall, reminded me of all the days and nights that I did the same thing. I tried so hard to make friends during the time I spent in a psychiatric hospital when I was 15. I was there because I was suffering from severe clinical depression and suicidal thoughts.

But like Soso, I couldn't quite connect with the people around me. I got teased constantly and was told by several patients that no one liked me. Even the nurses got tired of my constant crying and sadness. The more I was rejected, the worse I felt, and the less everyone liked and cared about me.

The pain of that kind of rejection, especially by the people you think will understand you, is overwhelming. Depression can take a hold of you, and without the right support, lead to thoughts of suicide. Being trapped in a locked ward, not knowing when you'll have a life again and when you'll have opportunities for connection beyond the people locked in there with you, can make it so much worse.

In response to Soso's admission that she's feeling depressed, Sam Healy, her prison counselor, tells her: "People aren't gonna want to be friends with you if you're moping around because sad people are depressing, right?"

Unfortunately, he does have a point, but that's not exactly the most helpful thing to tell someone who's struggling with clinical depression. He then says that the secret to depression is that it's "all in your head" and sends her off to get a prescription for anti-depressants.

Although Healy seems to genuinely want to help her, his character also genuinely misunderstands how to communicate with someone suffering from depression. Plus, in real life, he'd mostly likely just be doing what he was taught to do. Institutions often don't have the time or resources to spend on psychological issues that they mistakenly believe can be numbed out or glossed over with medication. And this isn't a problem unique to prisons. My psychiatric ward psychiatrist treated me the same exact way.

When I was in the psych ward, I wish I'd had someone who understood me like Berdie Rogers, the new counselor in the prison. She advocates for Soso and tells Healy it's not a good idea to jump right to medication without talking out the problem. When he defends his decision to tell Soso that depression is all in her head, Berdie says: "When someone's feeling vulnerable, they need their pain acknowledged, not to be made to feel worse by having it."

Berdie reminds me of the best therapists I've had, the ones who didn't belittle me or my emotions, but made me feel seen and understood. Instead of being dismissive, she's sympathetic. She gets what depression is and how it feels.

Unfortunately, Healy has it out for Berdie and gets her suspended later in the season. Soso has no one to help her when the depression takes a turn for the worse. She asks Healy for another anti-depressant referral, which in itself is not a bad or weak thing. Anti-depressants can help a lot of people who suffer from clinical depression. I myself took them during my hospital stay and for many years after. But they can't solve underlying problems, which for Soso is her desperate need for friendship.

Luckily, Soso has someone else looking out for her. Fellow prisoner Poussey Washington is also lonely and unsure of where she belongs. She stands up for Soso after she's bullied and helps her recover from her failed suicide attempt. In the last episode, Poussey welcomes Soso into her group, and they hold hands.

There's a glimmer of hope for Soso that maybe she's found a place to belong and someone who cares about her. I eventually made a couple of friends during my stay in the psych ward. They didn't turn out to be deep or lasting relationships, but having any kind of social connection is so important, especially to someone with depression. Those moments of connection were what made my depression bearable. They still do.

Orange is the New Black is the first show I've ever seen handle depression in a comprehensive, realistic and eye-opening way. The plot slowly develops over the course of the season, allowing viewers to gain a better understanding of the issue instead of cramming it into one episode and reducing it to dramatic effect. It captured the experience of having depression in an institution so beautifully, and for that, I am personally grateful.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.