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Homeland, Carrie Mathison and mental illness on television

Positive portrayals of people with mental illness exist in the media but these are the exception rather than the norm. Network Ten

When Homeland first aired in 2011 starring a CIA agent with bipolar disorder, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes), it was commended for its realistic portrayals of people with mental illness. Courtney Reyers from The National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that Homeland was doing “one of the best jobs of portraying mental illness in modern television today with compassion, clarity and responsibility”.

The show received a Voice Award which recognises public education of mental health issues. Wilma Townsend from the Centre for Mental Health Services (co-sponsor of the Voice Award) suggested that the show is “a good educational piece for both the general public and people who have a mental illness” because it sends the message that “a person can have a mental illness and still function”.

Ellen Leibenluft, from the National Institute of Mental Health was of the view that Mathison’s symptoms were “extremely well-portrayed”.

Generally, the mentally ill are portrayed as inherently dangerous, violent and unpredictable or disabled and incompetent in all forms of the media. Some positive portrayals exist – such as A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Soloist (2009) – but these are the exception rather than the norm. People living with bipolar are more frequently depicted as violent.

More generally, characters who are psychologically disturbed tend to be associated with violent and aggressive behaviour, a tendency we see in films such as, Play Misty For Me (1971); Fatal Attraction (1987) and Misery (1990).

In Homeland, Mathison is the protagonist and one of those in charge of matters pertaining to national security while managing her mental illness.

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Season one: the uncompromising Mathison

The first season centred on the uncompromising Mathison. She is convinced “war hero” Nicholas Brody is an Al Qaeda agent based on evidence and intuitiveness – rather than delusions. Far from being portrayed as a social failure with few skills or without identifiable employment, she is a high-level CIA operative in charge of recruiting, training and managing assets.

The audience is exposed to her bipolar disorder which she keeps secret from her employers because she would lose security clearance. So she obtains medication from her sister, a psychiatrist, rather than seeking treatment through formal channels.

These depictions highlight the negative perceptions of such disorders in the workplace but, also their effective management with the right medication. Crucially, it illuminates the hesitation or shame that most sufferers experience in seeking help for disorders that may be perceived to interfere with their employment, particularly when in positions of leadership.

Season two: a change in tone

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However in Season two, stereotypical depictions of bipolar emerge.

Previously, Mathison’s defiance and refusal to take orders from her superiors reflected her insight and exceptional awareness of Brody as a real threat. Her decisions were often accompanied by plausible reasons. Throughout the progression of the second season, however, Mathison appears to simply disregard all cautionary instructions regardless of the risks to her life or others in the various secret missions.

She is characterised as the “rebellious free spirit” stereotype in film portrayals; someone who is eccentric, different, unpredictable and with delusions of grandeur and invincibility.

She is the typical single character living alone; the seductress with an unfulfilling personal life and without meaningful long-term relationships. Mathison is seen changing into a dress. When she realises she has nowhere to go she attempts suicide. She also sleeps with Brody despite knowing his role in a domestic attack.

Though these episodes show the day-to-day difficulties in coping with mental illnesses and the social stigma that leads to isolation, the “troubled woman” characterisation is problematic.

Her mental illness seems to have been used to explain the “breaking of rules”, irresponsibility, impulsivity and otherwise implausible behaviours. Bipolar disorder is manageable with modern medicine particularly when pharmacological interventions are combined with psychotherapeutic approaches, but emphasis was placed on dysfunction.

Season three: heavily medicated

Season three emphasises irrational decision-making and disturbing images of psychiatric restraints.

Having decided the medication interferes with her judgement Mathison resorts to sleep-management and exercise instead. Because she is increasingly volatile, publicly lashing out at her superiors and threatening to release classified material about the agency to the press, she is involuntarily detained at a psychiatric hospital. She is heavily medicated to the point of speech impairment.

This is explained by the writers as having been a deliberate act devised by Mathison and mentor Saul to lure out their enemies.

But this particular narrative – excluding other plot devices – was chosen precisely because of Mathison’s illness. It was in line with the 1999 study by Claire Wilson in which 55% of characters with mental illness in prime-time TV dramas were portrayed as helpless, unable to control their lives, and dictated by the will of others.

Indeed, Mathison later remarks: “You shouldn’t have left me in there Saul”. Clearly, she was unaware of the extent of the ruse; she was simply used because of the vulnerabilities associated with her illness.

Perplexingly, Mathison risks this entire operation to search for Brody’s missing daughter, utilising the agency’s resources as though other law enforcement officials could not deal with the matter. Later, she is seen jeopardising another operation such that she needed to be shot in the arm to be stopped.

These themes of dangerousness, incompetence or unpredictability illustrate the narrative choices in order to, in Claire Wilson’s words, “signal mental illness in a character … providing an accessible motivation for otherwise improbable actions” ultimately becoming the only way of defining the main point of the story.

These depictions can have negative effects on public perception. They affect not only help seeking behaviours but also continuation of treatment. Those in the psycho-social sector need to consider how they can proactively be involved in the responsible media depiction of people with bipolar.

It will be interesting to see how season four, which launched in the US in October, progresses – although the initial signs are not promising. In its first four episodes Mathison has contemplated drowning her one year-old daughter and seduces a witness – who is referred to as “a child” and “the boy” by her colleagues – for information.

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