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Mental Health on ‘Succession’: Why the HBO Series is More Relatable Than We Think

The popular tragedy-satire HBO show “Succession” — which recently won three Golden Globes — centers on a power-hungry family filled with deceit and pettiness. The dysfunctional family fights over power dynamics while managing uncertainties with the health of patriarch Logan Roy, who leads a global media and entertainment conglomerate. While the family may be fictional and many of the show’s plot lines unrelatable to anyone who is not a billionaire, the mental health issues many of the characters face may be a lot more resonant.

Tim Overton, PsyD, is an individual and couples therapist for The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania — and an avid fan of “Succession.” Although the show is dramatized, Overton has noted two common patterns of mental health issues which ring true for many individuals.

For those who have not caught up to all three seasons of the show, please note there are some spoilers ahead for season three.

Mental Health Patterns

The show centers around the formidable leader and father Logan Roy, who came from a humble background as an immigrant from Scotland and raised in Quebec, Canada. His drive to succeed was to create a better life for himself and his family. But when Logan is introduced on screen, viewers see him unwilling to express emotions other than anger while orchestrating manipulative behavior towards his children and others.

“We see Logan as someone who has lost all sight of what truly makes his life more fulfilling. He often confuses money and power with fulfillment,” said Overton.

Overton explains that it is important to be able to periodically step back and ask yourself, “why am I doing what I am doing?” because otherwise we get trapped in habits that no longer serve us. Most therapists will ask their patients to redefine what is fulfilling to them and how they can adapt that to their current environment. While Logan is not in the same position he was when he started the company and first defined what is most important to him in life, he has not adapted well nor changed how he interacts and handles situations. 

Another pattern noted on the show is an avoidance perspective. Every main character displays this in a different way with trying to avoid facing and feeling their true emotions. Viewers see Logan’s son Kendall battle with addiction to mask his emotions, and his lone daughter, Shiv, refusing to allow herself to be vulnerable with her husband, Tom, leading to a strain in their marriage. His youngest son, Roman, uses humor at inappropriate times to deflect from having serious conversations, and the viewers see Logan’s eldest, Connor, seek constant validation of his career and partner, Willa.

“These deflective behaviors are common,” Overton explains. “A lot of people come into therapy thinking that having an emotion is a problem, but a lot of times trying not to have that emotion causes a bigger issue.”

Experts with the Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn use a specific treatment called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help patients experience and manage emotions. ACT uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase being present in the moment and feeling  difficult emotions.

“Therapists often say to patients that we are not necessarily just trying to help them feel better, but are trying to get them better at feeling — it’s something many in the Roy family could likely benefit from,” Overton noted.

Breach of an Unspoken Contract

Tim Overton
Tim Overton, PsyD

The marriage between Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans can be defined as an unspoken contract of convenience, both with some understanding on how their union can mostly only benefit their careers. It is easy to identify this dynamic by just watching the characters interact, neither of them overtly displaying signs of affection. Even when Tom does try to discuss things such as his anxiety about (spoiler alert) possibly going to prison or his wishes to start a family, Shiv shuts the conversation down. It is essentially a “no fly zone” for the couple.

Most couples do not get to the extremes of Tom and Shiv, Overton explains, but problems can arise between couples when there are unexpected shifts in these unspoken contracts. For instance, a military spouse may know that long deployments or frequent moves are part of the “contract,” but these events are still often overwhelming when they occur. It is important for a relationship that a spouse feels safe bringing up their feelings about any challenges they are facing. And in this example, that the service member knows that they are still supported and that their partner bringing up these feelings does not mean they are reneging on the contract.

Overton encourages individuals in these types of situations to speak up and express their feelings to their partners: “It helps both partners understand that sometimes you expect one thing but emotions can come up and support can still be shown, even if nothing can change.”

Uncovering the Root of Mental Health Issues

Within the world of “Succession,” it is hard to pinpoint where these complex characters’ mental health issues came into play— perhaps they stem from growing up privileged with immense wealth or Logan’s manipulative parenting. But Overton explains that you don’t need to fix the past in order to fix the future. People often want to know why they reacted a certain way to things or what made them feel upset or happy about something, but it’s not necessary to get to the root-cause of an issue to form a healthier mindset.

Overton notes the Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn often utilizes Cognitive Process Therapy (CPT) to help individuals who may be stuck on trying to figure out why a trauma happened or who is to blame. CPT, which can be used to treat PTSD or other trauma-related disorders, is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps patients learn how to modify and challenge unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma. In CPT, clients can learn that a traumatic incident does not define them. Blaming themselves, others, or the world for what happened in the past often distracts from the reality that the present is a much different context than where the trauma occurred. So whether the Roy family can blame their upbringing, their father, or their unlimited money supply, they can step back, look at their values and reevaluate what type of people they want to be going forward.

At the end of the day, Overton wants to remind everyone that although we might find parallels with the Roy family in regards to common mental health issues, the characters of “Succession” are fictional and it is a television show for entertainment.

“I want to remind everyone that most people who experience issues with mental health are rarely as mean as those we see in the series,” Overton said.

But if people identify with the dynamics and character storylines displayed in the show, it might be a sign to talk to someone or seek help before it gets to those extremes.


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