If good TV makes us root for the sort of characters we’re supposed to hate, Orange Is the New Black is among the best shows out there. The hit Netflix show, which saw its third season released in early June, has managed to present a human side of the prison population. We’re now doing Facebook quizzes to find out which member of the Litchfield Prison we’re most like and swooning over the romantic entanglement between guard John Bennett and inmate Daya Diaz (Well, SPOILER alert … we were for at time there, anyway).
Orange is just a TV show. It’s important to note that in a month that’s seen two prison breaks in two states with corrections officers suspected of helping hardened criminals get out. The women of Litchfield are fictional characters played by law-abiding citizens.
But their problems are markedly similar to real prisoners … and to women in general.
Take Brook Soso (played by Kimiko Glenn), who showed up in Season Two. A younger prisoner with a big mouth (she tells the other inmates her parents named her Brook as in “Brooke Shields without the e,” but her name seems more a sign that she’s constantly babbling like a certain body of water), she was a pretty one-dimensional (and highly unlikeable) character when she arrived. But in Season Three, the naive protestor found her redemption with a paralyzing bout of depression that turned her from annoying newbie to lonely drifter in need of a big hug.
Prison depression isn’t uncommon — at least 20 percent of inmates report struggling with it — and neither is the treatment (if you want to call it that) Soso receives. Counselor Sam Healy thinks he’s helping when he tells her that “People won’t want to be friends with you if you’re moping around, because sad people are depressing,” and insists her problems are all in her head. His immediate call to throw drugs at her problem is hardly unheard of either — of the inmates who are treated with medication for their depression, 61 percent report receiving no other form of help, be it counseling or group therapy.
To be honest, it’s not that far off the mark for the general population either. While women are more likely than men to turn to someone for help with our depression, most of us make our first forays toward help to our GP. But studies have shown general practitioners remain ill-equipped to handle major depression and more inclined to take a pessimistic view of patients’ progress. Healy type “you need drugs” messages are common.
A good counselor would take one look at a despondent Soso with her dull eyes and her hacked off hair and jump into the fray., but Healy is not just ill-equipped to help but not familiar enough with Soso to know what he should be looking for — not unlike most doctors in a healthcare system where you get all of 15 minutes with a healthcare provider — if you’re lucky.
What Orange also gets right is the gradual decline into depression. Brook doesn’t wake up one morning and say, crap, I can’t deal with this life. She slowly begins to see that she’s lost her way, and she becomes increasingly frustrated with her options as she faces ouster from her “meditation club” in the form of Leanne’s bullying. Lacking friends to boost her up and facing relentless heckling, she closes in on herself, until a suicide attempt seems like the best option. Of course when Poussey, Taystee and Suzanne find her passed out in the library after taking too many pills (which turn out to be Benadryl), the people who she could have turned to — but didn’t know to turn to — emerge.
This is depression.
It’s tripping over the side of the well and falling not in a violent rush to the bottom but slowly, encased in a bubble you know you should be able to pop but can’t seem to make disappear, no matter how hard you poke away at it with your finger.
It’s feeling alone, even in the middle of a crowded room.
It’s not knowing who to trust.
It’s being too exhausted to try.
Brook Soso may not be real. She may not be someone we’d like if we met her in person. But she represents millions of American women. And for that, I’m grateful her story is being told.
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This post was written for Netflix to celebrate the third season of Orange Is the New Black, now streaming in its entirety.
Image via JoJo Whilden for Netflix