Does Homeland address Mental Health Awareness responsibly?

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Homeland is one of the most popular TV shows in America and is getting more and more popular around the world. In 2012, it has won 6 Emmys including best lead actor (Damien Lewis) and lead actress (Claire Danes) in a drama series, 2 Golden Globes and many more. Recently, it was awarded the best drama, best actor (Damien Lewis) and best actress (Claire Danes) at the 2013 Golden Globe awards.

If you have not watched it or at least heard about it (were you hiding in a hole somewhere?), Homeland is a drama series about Carrie, a CIA agent (Claire Danes) who believes that Nicholas Brody, an ex-prisoner of war (Damien Lewis), is a converted terrorist and is planning an attack on American soil. Despite Carrie’s brilliance, her colleagues do not always trust her decisions because of her unorthodox ways of working.

What is more interesting (for me, at least) is the fact that Carrie is suffering from bipolar disorder (Manic Depressive Disorder). In the first series, she tried to conceal her illness from her work colleagues because she is afraid that her colleagues will lose their trust on her, or worse, she could lose her job. She gets her medication from her sister, Maggie, who is a trained and practicing psychiatrist. Maggie issues Carrie pills ‘under-the-table’, and these pills seem to manage Carrie’s condition.

Many have weighed-in about Homeland’s portrayal of bipolar disorder, with some applauding it’s bold yet sensitive writing while some claim that the show’s representation is irresponsible. Negative points stem from the fact that Carrie is being treated secretly and unofficially, which could encourage the public to do the same. Additionally, some argue that Carrie’s high level of intelligence, confidence and success paint a wrong representation of people with bipolar disorder.

In my opinion, Homeland’s creators, writers and indeed, Claire Danes, are doing a magnificent job. Firstly, they have a person with psychiatric condition at the centre of the show and as a protagonist. Normally, characters with psychiatric conditions are portrayed as bad/evil (SEE MY ARTICLE ABOUT BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT). It is somewhat refreshing to see someone like Carrie being the centre of the plot. Secondly, the programme shows both the highs and the lows that a person with bipolar disorder might experience. Carrie is known to be a ‘genius’ in her own right in what she does. However, her behaviours are somewhat erratic and she has the tendency to break down if pushed too much.

It is important to note that Carrie’s case is an extreme one. Not everyone who has MDD is a genius like Carrie and not everyone’s situation can be managed by pills, just like Carrie. However, her situation is representative of what people with mental illnesses go through everyday. Over 60% of women employed in the United Kingdom are living with a mental illness. These people try their hardest to manage the stresses and strains of each working day, just like Carrie. However, they are all not CIA/MI5 agents like her. They are teachers, shop assistants, doctors, nurses and lawyers, trying to function well in this society. Nevertheless, we need to understand them and give them the right support to flourish.

Homeland also brings about the existing stigma about people with mental illnesses. As mentioned, Carrie did not conceal her illness to her work colleagues until the end of the first series, because she was afraid that she could lose her job (which she did in the end of the first series) and the trust of her colleagues. Unfortunately, this reflects much of what is going in the ‘real world’. A lot of workers hide their mental illness, and are scared to ask for help because of the stigma- which should not be the case. Workers are protected by the Equality Act 2010 which states that:

“…most employers have no right to ask for information about your health when recruiting. However, in an interview, they can ask whether you have the ability to do key elements of the job. There is also a specific exception in vetting applicants for work in national security such as intelligence services. If your mental illness has lasted 12 months or more you are likely to have rights as an employee under the Equality Act. Telling your boss, occupational health or human resources department will mean your employer is obliged to consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to your working life to help keep you well. You can ask them not to tell colleagues, but they may need to tell the human resources department.”

I feel that the inclusion of this issue in a well-known show like Homeland may increase people’s awareness of it. Hopefully, it will result in more people opening up to their significant others and it may also increase people’s understanding of mental health. One criticism that I have though, is that in the show, Carrie has not received any other psychological treatments apart from medication, although in the end of the first series, she underwent Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT). Although ECT is still a controversial treatment, there are studies that have shown that it can be effective. Cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) coupled with the right medication has been shown to be the best treatment for people with bipolar.

Finally, the best thing about the show is that Carrie does not let her condition define her. She struggles with it at times, but she copes with it. She does not use it as an excuse forany bad things that happened to her.

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