Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Nicole Cahill
When they set out to create a show centered on a child with a mental illness, I’m sure Erica Spates and Sam Littenberg-Weisberg knew there would be some challenges to overcome. If you throw a cute dog into a dysfunctional family, saturate the family with serotonin, and toss some stereotypes together, you get Netflix’s The Healing Powers of Dude. Although I’m sure the show’s intentions were pure, it’s hard for anyone to fake an illness they don’t really have, especially one that is so often misunderstood, as is Social Anxiety Disorder.
Noah Ferris (Jace Chapman) is an 11-year-old with social anxiety in The Healing Powers of Dude. Noah had previously been homeschooled but decided that he was ready to go to middle school with his peers. This would provoke nervousness in anyone — that’s normal! It’d be slightly concerning if someone wasn’t nervous about starting at a new school with new friends after having been homeschooled for so long. The show starts off as Noah is going to be entering school on the first day. As he’s in the car with his family, Noah is aware of his anxiety and tries to repeat positive mantras to himself.
As he walks up to the school, his anxiety is already overpowering him. He doesn’t even make it inside. His parents reassure him that they will get Noah the best emotional support animal. He is skeptical, but figures he’ll give it a try. Enter: Dude. Dude is a dog that can talk to himself and other animals, but the humans have no idea that he is even talking. On the second day, even with Dude, Noah’s anxiety prevents him from getting much farther than he did on day one. Although he makes it inside, his fellow classmates soon turn to zombies. The principal rushes in and scurries Noah and Dude to his office, where Noah proceeds to throw up because he is overwhelmed. Noah doesn’t make it to his homeroom until the Friday of the first week, which isn’t very realistic. Although there are accommodations in place for those with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), mental illness isn’t usually thought of as something that’s covered.
It wasn’t apparent to me that I could receive accommodations for my social anxiety until I reached college, and even then, it was nearly impossible to receive the help I needed. It most likely would not be tolerated that Noah can skip a week of school because he is too nervous about going to class. Furthermore, it’s wonderful that Noah’s parents are so helpful — although they are borderline overbearing — and the school staff is understanding, but that isn’t the way it really is for those of us with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Noah then meets Amara (Sophie Jaewom Kim) and Simon (Mauricio Lara). Amara isn’t afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she needs as a young girl that uses a wheelchair. Simon is an outgoing young boy who is eager to make friends with Noah and Amara. As the show continues on, these become a trio of best friends — four if you count Dude. The next thing standing in Noah’s way is an oral presentation. Although this would undoubtedly bring out Noah’s social anxiety, I find this example to be rather lazy. An oral presentation would make nearly anyone uncomfortable and nervous. By this point in the show, I was left feeling like Social Anxiety Disorder was misunderstood. So, I asked around to see if I was the one that was misunderstanding, or if society as a whole struggles with knowing what Social Anxiety Disorder is.
I asked some friends and family what they thought Social Anxiety Disorder was. I didn’t want a regurgitated answer from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). I wanted honest opinions, even if they were wrong. This is what a few people came up with:
“I think it affects all of us in different ways and different degrees I handled it pretty well but my partner cannot stand being in large crowds of people in rooms or out on the street.” (Donald Ciniero)
“Not wanting to be in crowds or large parties. Out of the comfort zone. Places like the arena or large public events. But it can be different for others. Even small gatherings can cause the anxiety.” (Geidy Laza-Autore)
“I think it’s more common than we think. My brother even had difficulty coming to family gatherings and my stepdad refused to come out of his room for his birthday party. A good friend of ours couldn’t even make it to our wedding because of anxiety. What causes this anxiety? How can it be overcome?” (Jelaine Zuccari)
These examples pleasantly surprised me. I figured that I would get something to the effect of, “Someone who is shy and introverted and doesn’t like people.” Although someone with Social Anxiety Disorder may be shy, introverted, and not like people, that isn’t what Social Anxiety Disorder truly is. According to the DSM-5, here are a few of the diagnostic criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder:
“Fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others”
“The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated”
“The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety”
“The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed”
“The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”
Throughout the show, Noah’s anxiety is clear and persistent. It’s obvious that his anxiety is distressing. What isn’t as obvious is if his anxiety is distressing to a level of impairment. He completed the oral presentation he was worried about, and it went well. He makes friends in Amara and Simon, and they build great relationships. He attends a big party at a friend’s house. Even though these things cause anxiety for Noah, he is able to get through them with relative ease. (Note: the party did cause an issue for Noah later in the show, but he was able to go to the party, which seems like something that most people with Social Anxiety Disorder would avoid altogether.)
I am not a doctor, but to someone with actual Social Anxiety Disorder, it seems more like Noah deals with generalized anxiety with a social component. The show made it seem that if you just push through your anxiety, you’ll be able to accomplish everything normally. This just isn’t the case. I have skipped presentations and received a failing grade for them because I could not will myself out of the plastic school chair to stand at the front of the room and talk to a classroom full of people. I have gone consecutive semesters in school without making friends because I am too afraid to open my mouth and utter a few words. I have skipped out on parties for my entire life because they are way too anxiety-provoking. The things that Noah accomplishes once he puts his anxiety aside are not things that can be done with ease if you have Social Anxiety Disorder. The Healing Powers of Dude made it seem like with a dog and a strong will, all things are possible.
There were good things, however, that came out of The Healing Powers of Dude. For one, the dynamic between Noah, Amara, and Simon was lovely. These friendships helped show that people with disabilities can make friends and connect on a deeper level because of their similarities. It also showed that even though a person that deals with social anxiety, they still want to build quality friendships.
Another thing that stood out to me was the coping techniques that Noah used when he was dealing with his anxiety. He frequently used positive mantras and healthy self-talk to combat the negative thoughts he was having. He also used the 5-second rule of counting backward and thinking of a positive thought to ground you. Breathwork was also used throughout the show to help calm Noah’s nerves and get in a more stable mindset.
It’s vital to display healthy coping skills in a show about a person with a mental illness. This helps model the healthy coping skills for the person that has a mental illness and helps reinforce for others that people dealing with anxiety are just trying to do the best they can, just like everyone else.
Nicole Cahill is a mental health advocate and an avid baseball fan. When she isn’t at the ballpark, she’s working with her nonprofit, Neuro-atypical Neighborhood, to make a difference in the lives of young athletes who have mental health challenges.