A Different #LawrenceHive: How 'Insecure' Made One Of TV’s Best Depictions of Black Mental Health
Photo Source: Illustration: Nathan Arizona/Photo: Jamie Lamor Thompson/shutterstock.com
William E. Ketchum III breaks down how Insecure managed to accurately portray the struggles that black men go through with depression.
Today, Oct. 10, marks the beginning of #WorldMentalHealthDay, an annual event that helps to destigmatize the labels that come with mental health. For me, though, every day is #WorldMentalHealthDay, as it is more than a buzzword for me — it is a reminder of a struggle I’ve dealt with for the better part of 10 years. Many people looking at me wouldn’t know that or even recognize signs of depression when they appear. This means that friends, family, co-workers and significant others are continuously oblivious to the mental illness issues that I and others experience on the daily. People who suffer this feel as alone as a leftover sock in the shadows. This issue is especially serious within the black community, as we suffer more than other groups because of racism, police brutality, wealth-and-health inequality, a white supremacist president, discrimination—whatever—you name it and it is an extreme worry to us. We are more likely to “pray it away” or hide it altogether because strength is such a large part of our ethnic identity.
Thankfully, there are musicians who lay bare their own insecurities and concerns like Danny Brown, Kid Cudi, Kanye West and others who offer a glimpse into what mental illness looks like through their songs and performances. Black TV and films are beginning to do the same, but they don’t do it quite as often. One show in particular, Insecure, has built a reputation for being a real world depiction of black life and relationships. Fans love the show on the surface because of its weekly “battle of the sexes” fodder, but beneath that are the quiet moments where Issa Rae and Jay Ellis have to face their own worries and concerns. While the worst days of my depression are behind me, the show’s arc of Lawrence (Ellis) put me right back in my parents’ basement several years ago - making it one of TV’s best portrayals of mental illness from the black perspective.
From the moment we met Lawrence in Season 1, Episode 1, it was clear to me that he was depressed. Laying on his and Issa’s bouch, unkempt and despondent after bombing another job interview, everything he valued was crumbling. He meekly acknowledged it two episodes later, telling Issa he had secured a sales job at Best Buy. “I know I haven't been myself lately,” he muttered. It's not a tacit acknowledgement, but that doesn't make it any less true.
I saw his depression because I've been there. After a fruitful college writing career that made me believe I was ahead of the pack, I spent two years as the same unshowered, chronically underemployed man that Lawrence was. Sleeping as much as possible to avoid the dread of waking back up to my shitty reality. Those two years are a blur of scant, scattered memories. More of a dreary still portrait than the conscious stream of ups and downs that life is supposed to be. I didn't diagnose it as depression until I was partly out of it; then, I could see it for what it was. But in some ways, being able to identify it made it worse. Even after being slightly above rock bottom, depression was still a dark cloud that never felt too far away from casting another shadow for another day, week, month, or year, whenever it felt like it.
The prospect of therapy was terrifying: to get help felt like a concession that I couldn't get out of it myself, which made me feel helpless. What if I got therapy and it wasn't enough to help me out of this? What could I do after that? I didn't come to the point of seeking help until summer 2016, when suicidal thoughts spurned me to finally seek therapy; I was worried about what I'd do to myself if I didn't resolve it. After intentionally showing up late for three weeks of sessions, I finally put my head down, opened up and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, it worked.
All of these emotions and memories rushed back in the moment I saw Lawrence on the show. And as Season 1 continued on and the #BlackTwitter discussion shifted to how he may have been to blame because of his chronic unemployment putting pressure on Issa, the conversation felt incomplete. It made me angry. Why were they painting him as lazy, and not recognizing that Lawrence was depressed for those two years? Why don't they realize how crippling depression is? And why is Molly encouraged to seek help for her mental illness while Lawrence's need was seemingly ignored? In the midst of the weekly battle-of-the-sexes debates, it felt like a huge part of the show's identity was being overlooked.
I grappled with the reality that while depression and mental illness have become buzzwords in recent years, very few people are able to recognize it, much less know what to do once they see it. After all, Lawrence had been suppressing his feelings for all of Season 2. When he tried to speak to his friend Chad about his residual feelings for Issa, he's mocked. “That's two bedrooms: one for you, and one for your feelings,” Chad zings. And when he feels used after his threesome with the two white women, he conceals how he really feels because he knows it won't be received well. This is part of how black men end up never addressing or diagnosing their depression or difficult emotions: we're told that it's a sign of weakness.
Lawrence's depression wasn't labeled as such until deep into Season 2, during his and Issa’s notorious argument outside of the restaurant at Derek’s birthday party. Both of them were being as hurtful as possible to each other, and Issa shamed him about his failed app while she was taking care of “his depressed ass.” While I was depressed myself, two of my worst fears were feeling like a burden to people who cared about me, and feeling like the depression would be used against me if anyone recognized it. Issa’s actions here were worse than her cheating could ever be. But I was grateful because finally, his depression was being called exactly what it was.
During the Season 2 finale, in the most beautiful bit of writing on the show, Issa and Lawrence finally had the honest conversation we've wanted them to have. And Lawrence dropped one of the biggest truth bombs of the season. “Sometimes I set these expectations for myself, and I just shut down if they don't go how I…” It’s exactly what Insecure has needed: a 140-character summation of how a black man can fall into depression. It was triggering to lots of us — and I've got the retweets and replies to prove it:
With Insecure Season 2 now at a close, I think it's important that the show covered Lawrence's depression in the way that it did. Writers didn't label it by name early on, and rightfully so: rarely do black men identify it for what it is, if even acknowledging it at all, and we may not recognize it until we can step back and have perspective. When Issa shamed him about it, we saw a clear illustration on how not to address depression with someone we love. And while depression shows its face in different ways, Lawrence's explanation was a perfect primer on the way depression can dig into one’s psyche. The show illustrated depression and labeled it. Hopefully, viewers can see what depression looks like in themselves and their friends, and have a better idea of how to deal with it.
Lawrence spent Insecure in the dumps with depression destroying his life. The depression is still a source of shame for him. “I'm sorry for not being who you expected me to be,” he said in the finale conversation. “Who I expected me to be.” And there are still more conversations about gender roles (Issa admits that she didn't know how to deal with his depression, but that she expected Lawrence to be stronger for the both of them), and how black men can acknowledge depression. But he seems closer than ever to the point where he'll be able to realize that he doesn't have to always yield to depression’s whims. That he can still treat people he cares about with the love and respect they deserve, make a living, and live a fulfilling life, despite that dark cloud never truly going away.
And so can I.