Puppet Power: Prioritizing Mental Health at Every Age

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On Jan. 29, users on X, formerly known as Twitter, were asked how they were doing by a furry red monster — “Sesame Street” star Elmo. 

“Elmo is just checking in!” Elmo said via his X account. “How is everybody doing?” 

Elmo, at a ripe 3.5 years old, was met with a slew of varied responses and, subsequently, a significant amount of responsibility. Garnering over 205 million views, the post prompted engagement from all kinds of people feeling a million different ways — including feelings of anxiety, depression and existential dread, according to an article from The New York Times. 

Elmo even got a response from President Joe Biden himself, encouraging people to be there for one another. 

It’s interesting how people — especially adults — feel comfortable opening up only when invited to do so. Despite the widely acknowledged importance of communicating about mental well-being, conversations about mental health are often stigmatized or neglected. 

While certain adult shows do accurately portray mental illness and give visibility to its related struggles, they rarely explain how community and openness can help combat them — this instruction and empathy is often reserved for kids shows. 

Depictions of mental illness in television and pop culture perpetuate harmful stereotypes, according to an article from Northwestern Medicine. Mental illnesses are homogenized in modern media, often portraying distinct mentally ill characters as all severe or all alike, according to the U.S. News.

Even in shows such as “Ted Lasso” and “Sex Education” — which are commended for their diverse, empathetic and nuanced depictions of mental health struggles — capitalize on a sense of repression and isolation. While characters do eventually open up about what they are going through, it’s more often than not because they feel like they have to — not because they want to.

While these shows are working to destigmatize conversations about mental well-being by portraying the difficulties associated with emotionally opening up, Elmo’s post reminds us of something even these shows fail to normalize — the simple power of asking someone how they’re doing.

Television shows for kids often make a point to depict problem solving, empathy and emotional regulation where mental and emotional wellness are concerned. Elmo’s own show, “Sesame Street,” is dedicated to nurturing connectivity and emotional wellbeing, affirming that “Mental health IS health!” 

Another notable kids show, Disney’s “Doc McStuffins,” follows a young girl who aspires to be a doctor as she communicates and heals her broken toys. In addition to encouraging kids to be vocal about their physical ailments, the show also emphasizes the importance of healthy habits — such as exercise and asking for help — in promoting mental well-being. 

This is exemplified in Doc Mcstuffins’ favorite quote — “Friendship is the best medicine.” 

In addition to “Doc Mcstuffins,” another show which has wormed its way into the hearts of viewers because of its empathetic practices and portrayal of loving relationships is Australian kid’s show “Bluey.” 

The interesting thing about “Bluey” is its ability to reach both children and parents regarding the importance of mental health. One episode in particular titled “Stickbird” shows Blueys father, Bandit, struggling with internal stress that keeps him from playing with his family. 

This episode in particular resonated with parents, who viewed it as “a good message to fathers to not bottle up their stress,” according to an article by The West Australian. 

Kids’ shows and their characters are powerful tools, reminding us to prioritize our own mental state, emphasizing — even more than most shows for adults — the importance of opening up to those we love. 

“Wow!” Elmo said via X. “Elmo is glad he asked! Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing. Elmo will check in again soon, friends! Elmo loves you.” 

Although it’s comforting to know Elmo will always be there for us, it’s important to remember his words — and the words of other kids TV show characters — which encourage us to open up and to let others open up to us. 

If we make more of an effort to follow the lead of Elmo, Bluey and Doc McStuffins, maybe Elmo’s next check-in won’t garner such an alarming response. 

Feature image by Ryan Pittman / The Phoenix


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