Why ‘Ted Lasso’ belongs at White House

Sara Stewart

On Monday, the White House hosted cast members from the Apple TV+ show “Ted Lasso” for a discussion of mental health awareness. It was a genial pairing of President Joe Biden, who’s touted plans for expanding mental health care in his “Unity” agenda, and “Lasso” creator and star Jason Sudeikis, whose titular soccer coach has become for many a beacon of bipartisan empathy in the TV landscape. In the show’s second season, his character struggled with panic attacks and began talking to a therapist about anxiety.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help ourselves,” Sudeikis said in the White House press room. “That does take a lot, especially when it’s something that has such a negative stigma to it, such as mental health, and it doesn’t need to be that way.” Yes, of course, agreed. Yet watching clips of the event, my main takeaway was: Truly, how is there still a stigma around mental illness? Could anything, at this point, be more ubiquitous than people struggling with anxiety and depression? Find me someone whose life is untouched by these things, and I’ll show you an independently wealthy person who’s been doing nothing but watching “The Great British Baking Show” for the past seven years.
Statistics, and most of the experts, will tell you that large swaths of this country’s population are not okay. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls mental illness “the defining public health crisis of our time.” Who is suffering the most? Teens. Teen girls, particularly. LGBTQ+ people. Transgender and nonbinary people, especially young people. Women, Gen Z, millennials. People of color. Anyone with a job in the US. Anyone struggling with their finances. A whole lot of the population, in other words.
And we all know this to be true, don’t we? Last October, a KFF/CNN Mental Health in America survey reported that “an overwhelming majority of the public (90%) think there is a mental health crisis in the US today.” And yet, when Senator John Fetterman sought inpatient treatment for clinical depression last month, his openness about the diagnosis was still seen (and, thankfully, largely lauded) as unusually forthright, with the White House calling his actions “brave.” And this is true!
But how depressing (so to speak) that we still have to frame it that way. A handful of other politicians in this country and around the world have disclosed similar struggles in recent years, though their stories are still singular enough that every such event goes through its own cycle of praise for the sheer courage of the openness. The Lasso-Biden summit at least was well-timed, arriving shortly after a baffling study in the British Medical Journal announced that during the pandemic, “changes in general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depression symptoms have been minimal to small with no changes detected in most analyses.”
To which I (and lots of other people) can only say: Really? Social media responded with an impressive and bleakly hilarious torrent of suggestions to the contrary, some of the best of which are helpfully rounded up here. So many people took issue that Twitter added an advisory that “the review admits that it was lacking in data for many vulnerable groups, and that the findings in it can’t necessarily be applied to everyone.” Or, as one commenter put it, “Yes except for women and young people and the poor. Great study.”
You might think Republicans would come out in force with a show of support for the Biden-Lasso summit, purporting to be big fans of this topic. But no: Members of the party that reliably uses mental illness as a talking-point distraction from any discussion of gun control after yet another mass shooting still managed to find fault with the Biden White House for holding a PR event dedicated to that very thing. Newt Gingrich, who has written and spoken out about the importance of mental health treatment, slammed the Lasso event as “shallow” on a Fox News appearance, calling the Biden administration a “situation comedy.” And Texas Congresswoman Beth Van Duyne tweeted of the event, “What the hell is Biden doing with his time?”
The criticism feels out of touch. Yes, Ted Lasso is a fictional character and yes, “Ted Lasso” is a comedy; it’s also one of Apple’s most popular shows, with what Politico has referred to as a “strange bipartisan appeal” that’s led to its being mentioned frequently by politicians from both sides of the aisle. And judging from White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre’s reaction, the cast’s appearance Monday drew a record number of reporters to the press room and yielded a ton of coverage, all of which included Sudeikis’ comments about mental health. I’d argue that goes farther, in terms of sheer messaging, than any straightforward political comments on the subject. It’s not the substantive action we need to make mental health care widely accessible. Yet. But it’s still a fairly savvy way to get a wide range of Americans thinking and talking about it, which seems like a decent step forward.