Zombies and Xanax: How Fear The Walking Dead Explores Mental Health

How one character's journey in Fear The Walking Dead explores society's attitude to male mental health...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Warning: Fear The Walking Dead season 4 spoilers.

“I’ve been living this for a long time, and now everyone is catching up with me.”

The character of Nick Clark on AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead isn’t immediately likeable. The typical sneering child of middle-class America gone bad, he opens the story in a vicious spiral of depression and drug abuse.

Yet through the broad canvas and deep character exploration which multi-season TV allows, this deeply flawed individual becomes something of a Byronic hero. His story serves as a metaphor for the way society too often treats mental health, particularly among young men, preferring to deny and silence them rather than admit there is anything wrong.

“No-one’s talking about this. No-one is saying anything.”

So says Nick as he sees what the mainstream media refuses to talk about; civilization is teetering on the brink of an unspoken epidemic and at a point of collapse. In a stroke of writing brilliance, many of Nick’s most powerful and memorable lines could just as easily be talking about his mental condition as they could about the fact that the world is becoming overrun with mindless, flesh-eating undead.

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The primary cause of death for men under 50 is suicide, yet it’s a killer statistic which results in remarkably little action or even attention.

And when it comes to the conversation around mental health, men too often take a back seat. Crushed under society’s expectations, they turn to drink or drugs rather than face the bleak reality of a world in which it is all too easy to feel alone and helpless. A bleak world in which it feels as though there is no point in speaking out because there is no-one there to listen.

“It’s like no-one is paying attention…it’s like it’s not real.”

In grim irony, and even with the wealth of emotional baggage be brings into the apocalypse, Nick thrives. Thrust into situations which require lateral thinking and creativity, he becomes the key to his own and others’ survival, able to face a reality which others cannot accept.

With the rules of civilization abandoned, his bravery and resourcefulness come to the fore. All the qualities which resulted in his downward spiral, in a society he loathed, are now put to use in a world which rewards rebellion rather than obedience. 

Nick is the first in the series to notice details about what will attract the undead, taking this further by adapting and learning how to walk among them safely. It is also poignant that he is the first to see a zombie attack, but his revelations are dismissed as crazed ramblings due to his previous record of mental instability and substance abuse.

Nick typifies the frustrations of many young men, starting out as he does as both a boy-who-cried-wolf and a Trojan Cassandra character. But as the series progresses we see him evolve into his own sense of manhood as a powerful leader and source of valour. He is still very much human (and in the world of the walking dead, that’s sometimes as good as it gets); he is still too easily led and still tempted back into vice. But as he fights to keep his family together and negotiate their safety, you can’t help but get the feeling he has a far stronger sense of purpose in this broken world than he ever did in the old one.

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And for many young men, feeling purposeless is at the heart of their mental struggle.

“I don’t know if what I saw came from the powder. And if it didn’t come from the powder then it came out of me. My mind. And if that came out of me then I’m insane… I really don’t want to be insane.”

While others speak of what they were “before the fall” or cling timidly to symbols of a fragile faith, Nick approaches this “cleansed” earth with both resourcefulness and a new-found charisma. 

For those who suffer from depression, the parallels to a zombie apocalypse are startling. The feeling of being so completely alone, of not being able to accept the world as you find it, of feeling physically and emotionally divorced from the basic functions of life which fellow humans seem to be able to do so easily, can be a daily battle for survival inside one’s own head.

Many men have been trained from birth to suppress and ignore emotional feeling, to “just man up”. Nick is a narrative juxtaposition, finding his own emotional voice and ability to tell his family how much he loves and needs them, even as they in turn must harden themselves to the daily battle for survival to which he is already accustomed.

“I’m about to step into a world of shit. You know that right?”

Nick’s character evolution, from broken-yet-privileged millennial to martial powerhouse, is a metaphor for the mental and physical space which so many young people find themselves. Trapped in a world of ruthless zombie-like autonomy, between the office and suburbia with the weight of expectation heavy on their shoulders, is it any wonder many break under the pressure and opt, like Nick, to disappear?

While Nick meets his ultimate fate at the hands of this new world, his character is representative of a sect too often ignored. One in four people will experience issues with their mental health during their lifetime. To take away the fear it holds, it needs to be a part of our modern storytelling.

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Too many feel that the admission they need help for a condition which cannot be seen, much like the fictional zombie pathogen, is a sign of defeat. Characters like Nick show that we can emerge from the wasteland victorious, with strengths and qualities we didn’t know we had, even in a world where it can feel like the odds of survival are stacked against us.

“I’m not crazy.”

The world may not be overrun with the walking dead (yet) but the silence around mental wellbeing is a killer just as potent, ruthless and merciless as any virus.

And just like the zombie infection there is no miracle cure for our society’s mental health epidemic. But through more characters like Nick Clark, we can at least open up the conversation to talking about it.

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