National Edition

TV shows explore mental illness in their characters

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 7:25 p.m. MDT

Beyond bipolar, characters on "Community" and "The Big Bang Theory" are undiagnosed, but frequently said to have forms of advanced autism.

Richard Cartwright

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Carrie Mathison, of "Homeland," is a brilliant CIA agent. She solves crimes, catches bad guys and does it all with a fair amount of style. Her secret — or what used to be her secret until the latest season — is that she suffers from bipolar disorder. And Carrie is not the only TV character of late who has been used as a vehicle for shows to explore mental illness.

"The portrayals can be a double-edged sword, however," writes Alexandra Sifferlin at Time, "as they raise awareness of the realities of living with mental illness while frequently focusing on some of the more extreme symptoms and therapies."

In "Homeland," Carrie goes off her medication, choosing instead to self-medicate with exercise.

“I think ('Homeland') does a lot of things that are not only accurate but are commendable. In terms of accuracy, it shows someone with bipolar disorder who has episodes,” Dr. Vasilis Pozios told Sifferlin. “Instead of being someone who is (either) happy or sad, which is the lay person’s possible understanding of bipolar disorder, this shows the actual major depressive episodes, the manic episodes and also the psychosis that can happen with bipolar disorder.”

Beyond bipolar, characters on "Community" and "The Big Bang Theory" are undiagnosed, but frequently said to have forms of advanced autism.

"I understand completely why some speculate that Sheldon has Asperger's — and while it is clearly exaggerated, it's done in a way that feels fond to me, rather than mocking," Lynne Soraya wrote at Psychology Today.

Dexter, of "Dexter," is a sociopath, as is the lead character on ABC Family's "Twisted" (which was originally called "Socio"). Hannah from "Girls" suffers from OCD, and the main character on "Wilfred" sees visions of his neighbor's dog.

However common, these depictions can be extremely negative portrayals of mental illness. Rob Owen of Variety spoke to media psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, who said that symptoms of these illnesses aren't sudden, and that the illness itself develops over time.

"There are still shows that focus simplistically on making 'crazy' people violent or comedic," Lieberman said in Variety. "Other shows make the effort to go beyond the stereotypes and create characters with specific mental illnesses."

MaryLee Sudworth of The Guardian said that the shows can also open the door for conversations about bigger issues.

"These TV shows are putting mental illness into the mainstream and giving people who are dealing with a mental illness (or those close to someone who is) a chance to watch and reflect on their own issues," Sudworth wrote.

email: ataylor@deseretnews.com

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