Jul. 3, 2021

I’ll Be There for You: Why ‘Friends’ Offers a Mental Health Lifeline for So Many

I can switch on any episode and immediately feel less alone.

I was 18 when I moved out of my family home for university.
Despite my excitement about getting a fresh start in a new city, I quickly found myself feeling lonely, overwhelmed, and excruciatingly homesick.
As a form of escapism and distraction, I turned to a TV show that had been a steady part of my life for almost as long as I could remember.
For me, “Friends” was more than just a funny sitcom. In my new, isolated environment, Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe felt like familiar faces. I could switch on any episode and immediately feel a little less alone.
It’s impossible not to smile while watching Phoebe croon her way through “Smelly Cat” or Ross plod around awkwardly as the Holiday Armadillo.
Watching the show, I always felt a little more like my old self.
Why people turn to Friends for support
Few TV shows have been as impactful for so many people as Friends. The show ran from 1994 to 2004, but it remains hugely popular among young generations to this day.
In fact, in 2018, Friends became the most popular show on Netflix in the United Kingdom. That same year in the United States, 19 percent of adults aged 18 to 34 claimed to have watched every single episode of the show.
As this year’s Friends Reunion illustrated, my experience is not unusual. Over the years, countless people have turned to the show during periods of low mental health.
The show certainly has its flaws — namely the infamous Fat Monica trope and the notable lack of diversity in the main and supporting cast.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the iconic escapades of these six pals are still helping people get through their most difficult times.
Watching a TV show isn’t exactly the recommended treatment plan for a serious mental health problem. Still, as access to quality mental healthcare remains elusive for many, this strategy may not go away any time soon.
According to a 2019 study, a steadily increasing number of adults have experienced some form of mental health disorder over the past few decades. In fact, since Friends came to an end in 2004, rates of major depression in adolescents increased from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent.
Despite these trends, mental healthcare services in the United States have not managed to meet the increasing demand.
Psychiatrist Carol Alter told CNBC that less than 10 percent of Americans receive adequate treatment for their mental health disorders.
And so, many young people over the years have turned to Friends.
Chloe’s story
Chloe, a 21-year-old from Buckinghamshire, U.K., is one example.
“When my mum first introduced me to the show, I had just been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. I was 17 and wasn’t working because of my diagnosis,” she says. “She had the box set, so I watched it from start to finish. I have now seen it at least eight times, if not more.”
For Chloe, Friends gave her a glimmer of hope when she most needed it.
“When the characters were at low points, they always found a way to find happiness again through each other,” she says. “I lived my life through Friends, and although I didn’t know the people and they were just characters in a TV show, I felt like they were my friends too.”
Chloe found the final episodes of the show particularly helpful.
“When they all parted ways, it gave me hope that, even though I was unhappy with my life, things do get better, and good things will come,” she says.
Watching the reunion this year gave Chloe a chance to take stock.
“Although it brought back memories of when my mental health was at its worst, it also made me extremely happy and grateful for what I have in my life now,” she says.
Anna’s story
Anna Myers, a 27-year-old writer and creative consultant from Milan, found that Friends was a key part of coping with periods of depression.
She first watched the boxsets while in high school in 2009. Since then, she’s watched the show “too many times to count, truly,” she says. She even has a Pinterest board dedicated to Rachel’s best outfits.
Anna’s mental health has gone through ups and downs, she says.
“Comfort shows like Friends work great as an escape and a way to bring my brain back to a familiar place — remind myself that I’m just going through a rough patch and it won’t be forever,” says Anna. “Knowing the jokes by heart and still laughing at them even when I’m not feeling my best really helps put things in perspective.”
For Anna, Friends is the ideal show for just about any scenario.
“It’s a real balm for the soul. I watch it when I’m feeling down and also when I’m in an upbeat mood and want something light in the background,” she says.
She recently returned to the show yet again while living alone for the first time.
“I found that having Friends on in the background helped me relax and not think too much about the serial killers that might be hiding outside my window!” she laughs.
An expert’s take
For Chloe, Anna, and countless other fans, Friends has become a vital pillar of support during difficult periods.
“Sitcoms are comforting for people going through mental health problems because they can serve as a place of refuge, connection, and acceptance,” says therapist and assistant professor at Albizu University Jessica Popham. “TV shows, especially those with many episodes and seasons, allow people to escape the problems of everyday life and immerse themselves in the characters’ fictional world.”
Still, immersing yourself in a show like Friends is only helpful up to a point.
“I do not think the characters in a show like Friends are a sufficient substitute for real, in-person friends,” Popham says. “A connection with a character from a sitcom can be powerful but, in the end, it’s one-sided.”
However, it’s not all bad.
As Popham explains, becoming invested in TV characters and relationships can help us build our social skills when we feel prone to isolating ourselves.
“You could ask yourself, ‘What would I do in that situation?’ and, perhaps, build enough confidence to seek out more friendships and interactions with real people,” Popham suggests.
At the end of the day, if a TV show is helping you feel less alone and more like yourself, it’s probably a good sign.
“If you like watching a specific TV show and it helps you to feel better and doesn’t impair your quality of life, I think you should keep watching it,” says Popham.
Takeaway
For the past three decades, Friends has been a lifeline for many people with mental health concerns.
Sure, the six Friends weren’t always the perfect picture of mental wellness: it’s possible Monica had an undiagnosed case of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Ross had his fair share of anger management problems, and Phoebe came from a traumatic past.
But maybe that’s why so many people relate.
Above all, Friends reminds us what it feels like to have a tight-knit community who will be there, no matter what. If you’re feeling low or you just need a reason to smile, Friends will be there for you, each and every time.