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“Homeland” Doing Right by the Mentally Ill?

October 21, 2013



Showtime’s critically-acclaimed series “Homeland” has gripped the attention of premium television audiences with it terrorist-driven plot and morally controversial characters, but what does the drama’s portrayal of highly intelligent but erratic, clinically bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison show the world about mental health and mental illness?


For a while I have wondered why I couldn’t “get down” with “Homeland” in the same way that seemingly everyone else has.  I loved “24”, and “Homeland” has similar themes and character portrayals. I even had a Jack Bauer poster in my first year dorm room; he was my hip new Superman.


At first I thought that maybe I didn’t like “Homeland” that much because I was so loyal to Jack. Or perhaps I just didn’t think the male protagonist (and military hero-turned-terrorist) Nicholas Brody was not that attractive, or maybe I just wasn’t feeling Claire Danes. Yes, I am loyal to Jack but Jack exited in 2010 and I have a soft spot for red-heads as Nicholas Brody; so it had to be Claire Dane the actress or Carrie Mathison the character.


As I watched the latest episode, and was once again drawn to the storyline’s suspense, I realized exactly what it was that I didn’t like: the mental illness component. Being an individual with a diagnosis of clinical depression who is considered to be high functioning, I hated the way Carrie’s bipolar disorder was depicted as a weapon that her employers used against her.


Within the first few episodes of “Homeland’s” third season, Carrie was placed in a mental institution when she learns her trusted friend and mentor Saul Berenson, now the head of the CIA, ousted her clandestine sexual affair with Brody while she was in her “unstable” bipolar state. She retaliates by attempting to go to the media, but is discredited and thwarted. After all of this, we then find out at the end of the latest episode that Carrie has conspired with Saul to use her mental illness as bait to attract internal terrorists to recruit her. As a person who lives with mental illness, I found the idea of someone using my pain against me, or the notion that I would allow someone to use my condition to assist in a mission, utterly appalling.


True, this is television and not everything should be taken so literally, but with mental health and mental illness still considered to be taboo, it’s hard not to scrutinize this portrayal when few people have an intimate understanding of what mental health and mental illness looks like, or comprehend the experience of living with it. Mental health and mental illness are incredibly controversial topics, and I appreciate the publicity that renowned shows as “Homeland” are bringing to this area. I truly hope that as the season plays out, the writers find a way to depict mental health and mental illness in a positive light. That way, the millions who consider the series to be appointment television each week may be able to gain a more positive and accurate understanding of conditions millions of individuals live with every day.

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