Mental Illness on Screen: Homeland, Bipolar and ECT

Watching C4 drama Homeland over the last few weeks I’ve been intrigued by – as well as the teeniness of Damian Lewis’s mouth – the portrayal of bipolar disorder which began as an incidental aspect of lead character Carrie’s (Claire Danes) life, later becoming a major plot changer.

wow, that really *is* a tiny mouth

It’s rare to see mental disorders, especially bipolar, represented in a serious manner by TV. Usually we’re a bit of a joke, seen as losers and undesirables, the ones shouting ‘gerbils!’ at the side of a road. So it was refreshing to see Carrie, in early episodes, portrayed as somebody with strengths as well as weaknesses, managing a successful career as well as a personality disorder.

The realism of Carrie’s need to cover up her condition in order to maintain that career especially rang true, and while I’m certainly not a high flying CIA spy or working in any industry requiring one not to be a card carrying nutcase, I have often debated whether or not to confess all (perhaps not all) on an application form and have met people who keep their condition a secret from employers. It’s an interesting debate – should those with mental illnesses be exempt from certain jobs? – though sadly not one that was explored during the course of the series.

During the latter episodes of Homeland, as Carrie’s ascent towards mania continued I felt that the sensitivity was lost somehow. While Danes’s performance was impressive it felt at times that she’d been directed with ‘you’re mad, really mad! MORE crazy eyes!’ to fit in with a script plucked from Wikipedia’s ‘Bipolar’ page.

While I wouldn’t for a moment deny that the symptoms of Carrie’s bipolar – promiscuity, obsessiveness, an inability to look after oneself, risk taking – were true to bipolar life, they were lazy choices that barely scratch the surface of the complexity of the condition. It certainly appeared that Homeland’s scriptwriters had little experience of bipolar and had they took the time to explore further they may have created a more nuanced character and one who was infinitely more likable. It says a lot that for the most part the obsequious wannabe terrorist was a more sympathetic character than the mentally ill woman he was conning.

Even less believable was Carrie’s final scene. I mean, ECT, seriously? I understand that the series is set in the US and doubtless mental health care works differently there, but I find it hard to believe that somebody would walk off the street to be administered a serious, highly controversial treatment that here in the UK is an absolute last resort. Carrie appeared to have requested the ECT but in reality would somebody in a high state of mania have been considered fit to choose? And would her sister, also a health care professional, have allowed her to jump directly from medication to fizzing the fuck out of her brain? Hadn’t she heard of CBT? Perhaps she might have suggested a few lifestyle changes, you know; more sleep, eat right, less shagging of married, high profile ex-hostages?

yep, sign me up for some of that!

What really overshadowed all of these ‘uh?’ moments though was the portrayed administration of the ECT. I know that my horror at this is entirely due to my own morbid fear of being carted off to be electrocuted until I’m a vegetable (but at least a sane vegetable), but did we need a graphic version of ECT on our screens? Was the fact that in real life anti-convulsants are administered prior to ECT, that the treatment is stopped after a only a few seconds to avoid the good old Jack Nicholson convulsions, just too inconvenient when a crazy woman fitting on a bed provided a wonderfully shocking finale?*  While I accept that in terms of realism Homeland’s version of shock therapy was an improvement on films of the past (although it should be remembered that many of those films were made at a time when ECT was a far more torturous procedure), only ever so slightly exaggerated, it felt almost worse to see it taking place so casually, just an addendum to a story.  At least those films – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Snake Pit, Requiem for a Dream – pushed us to question the brutality of such a treatment.

To my mind, what was an opportunity to really explore bipolar in a form that would reach a wide international audience became an exercise in shock tactics, the realities of mental illness buried beneath a lot of fast-talking and crazed expressions, Carrie’s only trump card, the only thing that proved that she wasn’t entirely insane – the truth about Brody – was even snatched away by the writers (alright, they had to do it, I want series two as well) at the last minute. It felt as if Homeland went from offering the first realistic bipolar TV character to dropping a final curtain scrawled with ‘and this is why we can’t trust nuts’.

*information courtesy of several morbid hours a month spent checking out ‘all the things they might do to me’.

Incidentally if you’ve ever experience Electroconvulsive Therapy I’d love to hear your thoughts – did it work?  Who made the decision to administer ECT? If it was you, why?…


It’s Harder To Crack A Prejudice Than An Atom

For a long time I’ve been of the belief that racism and sexism and other such ignorant attitudes were in some sort of cretaceous period and that the dinosaurs that held them were on their way out, claiming all the pensions ready to lay down in the mud and become fossils for future generations to find and be confused by (‘this bone definitely suggests that Mailus Readerum thought all Muslims were terrorists’) while we, the younger generation, forged ahead with our togetherness and understanding, to live in a happy world of rainbows and unicorns.

Well, ok, maybe I’m not that naive but, apparently I’m much more gullible than I thought I was.  I thought that ignorance and prejudice was a once in a blue moon thing and that our generation – the one currently producing world leaders and great thinkers and billions of people with useless degrees – had got over, you know, the being massive twats bit.

Earlier this year, Unilad, a site aimed at young men attending universities (ie: boys with an ounce of brain) put ‘banter’ under the spotlight with its statement ‘85% of rape cases go unreported.  That seems to be fairly good odds.’  It was, shockingly, supported by a stream of braniacs claiming ‘nobody minds a bit of rape banter’.

The whole thing made me somewhat furious and ranty.  But (naive, remember?) I assumed it to be a one off, the product of silly little boys making silly little jokes then skulking away with their limp little peepees between their legs when they were found out and told off.

Then this happened:


I shan’t give too much space to this story as I’ve no doubt you’ve heard more than enough about it already.  But suffice to say I was most definitely like WTF when I saw it.

The more I think about it, the more this ‘banter’ culture is spreading like a particularly virulent VD.  Topman, for example, have come under fire for their wholly inappropriate tshirts bearing slogans such as ‘nice new girlfriend, what breed is she?’  while my own personal nemesis (he doesn’t know about our feud but it most certainly exists) Jeremy Flamin’ Clarkson continues to be paid the big license payer bucks to behave as the Lord and Master of the Banter Crew, chortling his way through jokes about women, suicide and 1.2 litre engines.  It’s infuriating when women, having worked so hard for something approaching equality and now bearing the strain of not only working the same jobs as men but (more often than not) running homes and raising children too, are still belittled by men under the guise of this so-called ‘banter’.

The problem is, perhaps, that we become de-sensitised too easily.  Take for example my favourite topic, good ol’ mental health.  As I’ve mentioned several times before I’ve lost a job because of a lack of understanding of my condition.  My husband has been forced out of his workplace by people using my condition as a stick to beat him with.  It’s fast become something that I just accept.

This morning for example, a fellow blogger Tweeted ‘this weather is bipolar’.  I thought nothing of it, in fact it’s the sort of thing I might well pipe up with myself having become quite used to making lame jokes about my illness to make it easier for myself and other people to deal with (it’s much simpler to make a face and tell someone ‘I’m basically completely insane’ than to be serious and say ‘some days I can’t face my life and I generally assume that you hate me’), I’ve reached the point at which I don’t even see these comments as inappropriate.  But my pal, uber-blogger and one woman crusade, Sian was as fuming as one can be in 140 characters and what she said made sense:

@hoola well you shouldn’t have to get used to it. Just the same as my children shouldn’t have to get used to being called chinky. It’s wrong  

She’s absolutely right of course, all those times that people have said to me ‘oh isn’t everybody bipolar these days?’ (you’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that) or laughed at my inability to do everyday things and my bizarre phobias I shouldn’t have just ignored it, I should have stood up for myself and for the thousands of other people like me who are being treated as the butt of another inappropriate joke.

And..woah there Lesleymy mate’s kids have been called chinky?  This was a new one on me.  And the more I thought about it the more I realised that kind of casual racism still exists. Not just in the older generations but amongst people of my own age and now, as Betty – for the record, a kid who one would never imagine starting a fight or inciting someone’s fury but a gorgeous, friendly and caring girl who my own four year old son is in love with – has experienced amongst folk who’ve not even reached double digits yet.

Betty’s dad, Yan, wrote a post too.  Tears people, actual tears.

The fact that people younger than me; impressionable teenage boys,  primary school age girls, are casually tossing around racist and sexist terms, that they’re being raised by people who have no more sympathy or understanding of mental illness than your average 40s-born retiree…well, it’s just hugely depressing isn’t it?  I wonder if we’ll ever be at a stage at which the colour of your skin doesn’t matter, the reproductive organs you’re rocking isn’t an issue and depressive illnesses aren’t casually joked about or considered made up excuses for the lazy or bywords for ‘different’.

Somehow the fact that these isms are now dressed up as comedy or hidden behind ‘I’m not racist but…’ lines or cloaked in common sense political statements (I’m sure we’ve all heard rants about the influx of Polish workers, as if we, the British, have more claim to this particular few acres just because we were born on them or we hold a piece of paper that says we’re citizens*) makes them all the more poisonous.

Maybe we need to do more of this. Without the police brutality obvs.

I don’t think I’m the only one who can be called naive.  I think a lot of us have been merrily focusing on ourselves ignoring what’s right there under our noses.  Really, didn’t we all believe we were more open minded than our parents?  Perhaps we ought to be more aware.  Perhaps we should put up more of a fight against prejudice.  Perhaps we’ve all been too busy thinking about ourselves, worrying about getting a great degree, finding a fantastic job, getting on the property ladder, meeting ‘the one’, having a baby.  Perhaps we need to spend more time thinking about what’s important.  Perhaps we should remember what the people before us – Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Kate Fraser – did and continue their work in our own small ways, wherever we can.

Or perhaps I’m just naive in thinking that things will ever change.

*yes, I know it’s more complex than that.

Government Funds Mental Health in Work Service…But Should It Have To?

An estimated £4.8m is expected to be plowed in to Remploy’s mental health in work support service.

According to this report in HR Magazine  the initiative will seek to introduce work-based counselling and mental health support, provide personalised action plans, introduce the assessment of an individual’s needs and identification of coping strategies and both provide education for employers and help them to identify adjustments that can be made within the workplace or to working practices.

On the face of it this can only be a good thing, right?  It shows the government takes mental health seriously and it assists employers in coping with staff mental health problems.

But the more I think about this the less I welcome it.  I mean, for me it’s a moot point now, I’m a freelancer who only has herself to answer to (ok, clients too but generally I only have lovely clients), but in the past I can’t imagine that this interference in my working life or my employers’ businesses would have helped my case, and boy have I had a case or two.

bipolar bear would like to request a one to one.

My very last employer, not long after I was diagnosed with bipolar and severe post natal depression made me redundant, promoting a junior colleague in to my position after my contract was terminated.  This occurred a day or two after he accused me of paranoia and blamed my mental illness for my not agreeing with him in a workplace discussion.  I successfully sued for disability discrimination and although I was unable to recover the money awarded to me the fact that I was ‘right’ and he was ‘a twat’ did me just fine (though that £7k would be lovely right about now please Mr Karma).

In that situation no amount of education or support from Remploy or the government would have helped me to keep my job or to be able to work with my manager for any longer than I did.  Would an agency bustling in suggesting different ways of working and trying to ‘educate’ my boss on my mental illness have gone down wonderfully with him?  I sincerely doubt it.  And I doubt that it would be welcomed with open arms in most companies, especially right now when they’re all too busy running round like headless chickens trying not to go under in this horrid recession that has seen unemployment hit a seventeen year high.

As for the idea of introducing and adapting working strategies…again, in theory, this is a wonderful idea.  But I have beef and here it is: I don’t want to be treated differently and I sure as hell don’t want to be seen to be treated differently.  You can educate employers all you like but that doesn’t stop the office gossip and the resentment of other employees when somebody is deemed to be receiving ‘special treatment’.

Perhaps this new strategy might work for the shorter term mental health problems of stress or short term depression – though if an employee is hit by one of these two little nuggets of nutty it might suggest their workplace needs to address issues earlier up the line – but for somebody with a long term disorder; clinical depression, bipolar, OCD for example, will a twee attempt at action plans and ‘are you ok dear?’ meetings solve the potential problems faced by an employee with one of these conditions or their employer?  I doubt it.

The one brick wall I bang my head against time and time again is the lack of understanding of my condition among people, even people who know me well or who have their hearts in the right place, who see bipolar as something to be ‘snapped out of’, or who comment “oh, doesn’t everybody have bipolar these days?”.  Until the UK is able to open up communication on mental illness, something which we prefer to keep firmly under our cosy Persian kilim as much as possible, until an employee is able to feel comfortable admitting to their condition and openly discussing it with colleagues AND employers, un-judged, and until mental illness is seen as just as debilitating as a physical disability by everybody, Remploy’s attempts to improve the workplace for the mentally ill are likely to have little more effect than throwing a pebble in the Atlantic.