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Seeing Myself on TV

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Tears came to my eyes. I turned off the computer. I took a deep breath and checked in with myself. Am I ok? What does this make me feel and why? Does this feel like it puts me on display and am I comfortable with that?

I had been watching Showtime’s series “Homeland”. In the series, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison struggles with bipolar disorder. The nature of today’s media world is such that images can be constructed, filtered and curated and mental illness is often used as a plot device or an interesting character trait. It is dramatized, sensationalized or romanticized. The stigma surrounding mental illness is also propagated through media portrayal and can be dangerous in its impact. However, there is a tremendous opportunity in every medium to present mental illness in its true form and help dismantle the stigma that surrounds it.

My visceral reaction, that emotional impact I felt watching the show tells me this is a work that does not miss the mark. It was difficult for me to watch because as someone living with bipolar disorder, it sometimes hit too close to home. I may not have been able to handle some of the scenes but I am glad for it, as I know it may help open some minds. According to an interview with Dr. Rebecca Beirne by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Services, “Homeland gets it right in having a complex character that people can empathize with, who just happens to have bipolar disorder. That’s not the only storyline she has.” I find this extremely important as making a character’s entire identity their mental illness can be one dimensional and lead to the idea that people with mental illness cannot move past their difficulties or lead fulfilling lives.

Despite this, because of her impressive career and her charm, Danes’ character at times romanticizes mental illness; turns it into something dark and beautiful that makes her unique. In regard to this, Dr. Beirne also says that “what [“Homeland”] does get wrong is where it represents mental illness as offering a sort of supernatural intuition.” This is often done with natural artistic abilities as well. There are many portrayals of mental illness that depict such talents as ‘a side effect’ of being ill. One the show’s writers, Meredith Stiehm, addresses this in an interview by Entertainment Weekly. She explains that Danes’ character seems to have heightened capabilities when she is not taking her medication, and experiencing the full impact of her illness. Stiehm goes on to say that the show is meant to be agnostic and the message is that Carrie herself believes she is more capable when in a manic state. She is the one who sees her mania as the source of her intuition and investigative skills. Whether this comes across to the audience is up to you as you watch the show.

Nevertheless, I have often wondered if this is the case with me. I have always been a writer. My poetry is an important outlet for me and most of it touches on mental health. I have wondered if I would be a writer without the sadness, without the mania. There is something so compelling about the darkness and about describing the most difficult of human places. Neil Hilborn says “I think that the genes for being an artist and mentally ill aren't just related, they are the same gene, but try telling that to a bill collector.” Maybe he’s right. What can be problematic about this thinking is that it can lead to a view where mental illness should be revered in a way instead of treated and aided.

“Homeland” however, counters this slightly by the fact that it is noted how dangerous Carrie is to herself when she discontinues her medication. It is important for people consuming popular media to understand that mental illness requires treatment and those struggling should seek help as opposed to living as talented martyrs, suffering in silence for their art.

I do believe being mentally ill gives you something to write about, to paint about or sing about. Any strong human emotion is key to creating art and mental illness provides an array of emotions from which to draw inspiration. Lang Leav says “I don't think all writers are sad. I think it's the other way around - all sad people write.” Again, maybe this is true. Maybe sadness of a depth that is too great to easily understand demands to be expressed in a greater way.

These are questions I grapple with often, things that are on my mind as I try to understand myself better and what my mental illness means for my identity. Even if this is partially true, it is important to focus on the realities of mental illness. Mental illness can be jarring and this image of a mentally ill person as some sort of savant romanticizes the whole thing and takes away from the pain and the need for treatment.

It is the responsibility of those producing these works to consciously think about what they are saying about mental health, despite the fact that it may seem to be at the detriment of ratings or financial success. It can also be said that it is the responsibility of those consuming these media to educate themselves without leaving it to a television show to inform them on the symptoms of bipolar disorder. The key is to educate ourselves and unfortunately many people turn to popular culture. This is something that can be harnessed but it needs to be done in a responsible and accurate manner. With “Homeland”, Meredith Stiehm researched Carrie’s character by interviewing her sister who suffers from bipolar disorder as well as attending symposiums on the subject. There is a way to portray mental illness in a way that respects those who are ill and educates those who are not as knowledgeable. Mental illness is interesting enough as it is, dramatizing it or sensationalizing it will most likely cause harm.

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