For all the media attention that mental health gets, it is unfortunately those who are the worst who get any attention at all, the incarcerated, the suicides, the police shootings, and the chronically unwell have a disproportionate representation in the media. We talk forever about the perils of mental health and that we need to look out for one another, but the reality is that this is mostly done on face value, a superficial engagement with a cause bigger than we feel comfortable to handle. Whilst it is not the job of the entertainment industry to enlighten the public on mental health, it is a duty for the industry to realistically portray the struggles of the person with everyday mental illness. There are plenty of works that show that extreme portrayal of mental health, such as A Beautiful Mind and Fight Club – films which illustrate only the most extreme and rare of illness. To the casual observer, then, is this not what being mentally unwell is? An extreme illness which cannot be managed either by the individual or their loved ones, which leaves them confused and adrift in a world that neither they understand or which understands them.
But the reality is even more terrifying, according to research and data collection bodies, the incidence of mental illness is 20% or higher, that is 1 in 5 people suffering from a mental illness. But unfortunately, due to perceptions and stigma of mental illness very few of these people attending any type of treatment. In Australia, 2535 people took their own lives in 2012 an average of 6.9 people a day resulting in 85 734 years of potential life lost (based on life expectancy).
So, it is heartening to read an article on Homeland and a few other shows which adequately portray mental illness in all of it’s day to day minutiae, rather than in a saccharine sweet or violently extreme dichotomy. So how do the writers, actors and directors pull this off? Primarily they portray mental illness through it’s subtlety rather than for extreme symptoms. For the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness, they are able to live a relatively normal life, as far as their symptoms allow. This is in stark contrast to the person rocking in the corner or screaming, crying or yelling uncontrollably.
Carrie Mathison suffers from bipolar affective disorder (BPAD) otherwise known as bipolar disorder, or previously a person was referred to as being ‘Manic-Depressive’ It is an illness which usually has a great impact on an individual’s life due to the mood and behaviour ups and downs that they experience.
What are Carries symptoms?
Refusal of medication – This is one of the most common problems for the person with BPAD as the medication prescribed can tend to lead to emotional blunting and issues such as poor concentration and motivation. Due to the swings in mood, medication has to be provided to stabilise mood, which can sometimes lead to a complete lack of positive emotions. As a result, sufferers will try to get themselves off their medication, or to manage dosages so that they can feel ‘clearer’ We can see this in several occasions with Carrie, she has several arguments with both Saul and her family due to her refusal to follow medical advice.
Acting out behaviours – For a person suffering from BPAD there are often a myriad of acting out or excessive behaviours associated with mania. In BPAD, these behaviours are often impulsive, with the individual seemingly not able to exert control over their behaviour or higher order reasoning. For some people, this involves working excessively with no breaks, excessive drug and alcohol use and other risky behaviours. We can see with Carrie, that this is particularly related to initimate relationships – going against her better judgement with Brody originally, then the dude in the liquor store, and more recently family member of a terrorist and Quinn.
Social isolation – this is symptom that we see more of in a clinical setting rather than in a formal DSM type diagnosis. What I tend to see in people who suffer from BPAD is that their long term pattern of behaviour tends to push people away from them. Due to extreme ups and downs, they often find that they are unable to maintain ongoing relationships with others – which tends to start a self fulfilling prophecy – they act out to try to right wrongs or to build new relationships and due to their intensity in relationships with others, they can tend to push people even further away.
Somewhere along the line we may also talk about Peter Quinn’s PTSD – again covered in a subtle manner, whilst he has a few outbursts here and there, his behaviour very much mimics that of a person who suffers from PTSD. Unlike a lot of other dramatic films he is not hell bent on vengeance and plotting the downfall of his enemies, but rather he is apathetic, confused and angry – a common symptom pattern for people with the disorder.
So where else have you seen mental illness portrayed well in the dramatic medium? Or, where have you seen it done particularly poorly?