Homeland – An Irresponsible Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder?

Warning – Spoiler Alert.
If you haven’t finished watching the first season of Showtime’s Homeland, be forewarned. There be spoilers here.

OK, I’m the first to admit when I heard there was a show on the air about a Bipolar CIA agent, I completely dismissed it.

Last week an article in the LA Times Health section caught my eye.  The unreal world: ‘Homeland’ and bipolar disorder asked a question: Claire Danes’ character hides her condition from her CIA co-workers and is medically treated by her psychiatrist sister. Is this legit?

Now, I was intrigued.  What great fodder for a blog!  But, before I could give writing the piece a go, I really had to do the right thing and watch at least the episode to which the LA Times was referring in their article.  I started up the episode, was impressed with the show’s high production value and wound up watching the entire series.  Yes, it’s that good.

For those who don’t get Showtime here’s the premise:  Sgt. Nicholas Brody returns as a hero to the U.S. after spending eight years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Carrie Mathison is a bipolar  CIA officer who is convinced that Brody is an agent of Al Qaeda. Carrie correctly fears she will lose her job if anyone at the agency discovers her mental illness, so instead of seeking help through the proper channels, she relies on her psychiatrist sister to supply her with  antipsychotics and lithium to keep her condition under control.

The first thing that came to mind after I read a premise blurb similar to the one above was a question even more broad than the one the LA Times asked: “Is this really a responsible portrayal of bipolar disorder?”  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it, does it.  Bipolar is a serious mental illness that requires more stringent intervention than having your sister hand you a bottle of ill-gotten pills every once in a while. Also, with the media circus that’s been going on around bipolar this last year, it was easy to assume the show would center around and exploit Carrie’s bipolar condition.

Surprisingly, that’s just not the case.  And, as far as how Homeland treats the whole question of Bipolar, here’s where the show got it right.

Homeland does not advertize itself as being a series about being bipolar.  One of the main characters is an agent who happens to be bipolar.  Carrie is not a superwoman.  She is highly intelligent.  She is very good at her job.  She pulls some highly questionable stunts because she cares deeply about her work and her country.  The audience does not sit there hour after hour, watching a woman deal with being bipolar.  Her bipolar is not the focus, but it does complicate matters.

A lot of people are pretty rankled over the whole psychiatrist-treating-sister-under-the-table premise.  But, is it so far fetched?  I can tell you there’s been more than one time in my life when I have known people in sensitive positions to do some interesting things to keep their conditions from their employers.  Having your Dr/sister treat you off the record really isn’t that far fetched.  Another reason this part of the series doesn’t make me angry is because the writers are neither advocating it or preaching against it – this dramatic device is presented in a very matter-of-fact way.  Carrie is a woman doing whatever it takes to keep a job she’s not only passionate about, but who is damn good at what she does.

When I first read the article in the LA Times I was prepared to watch one episode of Homeland and then write a blog completely condemning the show.  After watching the entire first season, however, I can’t.  No one is more shocked than I am to see that Carrie Mathison is not a bipolar martyr, but is portrayed intelligently and without sentimentality by both the writers and the actress who plays her.

Is the way she’s receiving treatment responsible?  Absolutely not.

However, by the end of the season, there is some redemption to be had.  What the LA Times article fails to mention is during the last minutes of the final episode, you see Carrie voluntarily admitted to the hospital, having requested to undergo ECT.  She goes on the grid, gets a team of professionals involved and chooses to treat her illness above-board because she can’t handle her life anymore as it is.  As a BP person myself I have to say that whatever side of the ECT argument you’re on, a sufferer taking charge of their own treatment is always a responsible portrayal of bipolar disorder.

So, for those of you who have seen the show, what do you think?  Is there any good in the way Homeland portrays bipolar disorder?

(Update – the link to the original LA Times article has been fixed.  Please post a comment if anyone finds it has broken again.)

To be fair, I’ll preface this by saying I’ve never watched the show.

A doctor treating a family member far fetched? No. Questionable practice of medicine? Ab-so-freakin’-lutely! There are a whole lot of doctors that have gotten in trouble for that nearly unethical practice of diagnosing and prescribing for family members. There is not enough objectivity in observation, therefore there’s not enough objectivity in practice. A surgeon wouldn’t operate on a family member. Why should that not be applicable all the way around?

I do enjoy the fact that she is portrayed as a moderately functional woman, dealing with her mental health, and addressing the issue of stigma. I think that kind of portrayal is more of what we need to help relieve stigma resulting from stereotype.

I came across the same article you did, and it must’ve been about the same time. What kept me from writing about it is that I hadn’t seen the show.

I was surprised when I found out her character had bipolar disorder, because I saw a plug for the show on one of those terrible morning talk shows and Claire Danes didn’t mention anything about that. If she had, I would have payed more attention and watched it!

The concept of having her sister treat her is absolutely plausible, though obviously a bad idea. I’m glad to hear your explanation of the show, and that bipolar disorder isn’t necessarily the primary focus. When I watch shows and really enjoy them, I can usually rely on Showtime to get it right for the most part. They have some great writers and I’ve continuously been happy with what they’ve produced.

I’ve been meaning to check Homeland out, but now that I have a bug in my ear I guess I’d better do it sooner rather than later!

I’m curious to watch this series and will try to rent the ones leading up to the present…I don’t have Showtime.
I am a former live in partner of a self medicated bipolar disorder sufferer many moons ago. My ex has showed up unannounced several times last year, divorced and in trouble, I found out. My stress levels rose too high to discuss. It’s been more than half our lifetimes ago that we parted. Breaking into my bldg., stalking me…looking for my help in some way, I suspect, as if we parted last year. Since all of this long forgotten chaos, my memories and emotions have resurfaced and I’ve been reading up on this disorder. “Knowledge is power”. I will definitely be intrigued by this series and add it to my learning experience. I understand this disorder is not uncommon.

Hi, M – thanks for reading/replying. Good for you, taking the time to read and learn about bipolar! You’ve been through a heck of a time, extra marks for hanging in there and for trying to find good information. I’ll paste some links to valid resource info at the end of my reply.

Yes, Homeland is great television, and it was great to see one of the lead characters taking charge of her treatment. However, Carrie (the bipolar character) isn’t a good representation of what bipolar is, nor is she a very good vehicle to help those of us with BP fight stigma. There are scores of people who, once on the right treatment regimen, lead happy, productive (and even boring!) lives. I hope both you and your ex can find the resources and the help you need.


The National Institute of Mental Health’s Bipolar Page offers information on treatment, clinical trials and statistics.


The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance features a What’s Happening section, including an Ask the Dr column. The core membership of DBSA is patients.


National Alliance on Mental Illness has a great section on fighting stigma. The core membership of NAMI is patients and their relatives.

Hang in there!

Maybe I am a romantic, but I absolutely loved her portrayal on the show. I refer to it as the show that made me want to be a CIA agent and simultaneously told me I could not be.

I am bipolar NOS, or II, or cyclothymic or whatever. I am a flurry of hypomania and dysthymia, occasionally hitting extremes. I have accepted or rejected the whole mental heath industry on many different occasions–but actually was prescribed a drug that works and am in awe.

I have always been a heady girl. I was interested in arts and then literature analysis, and then studied philosophy. I then switched from philosophy to neuroscience. All of my interests hovering around logical systems and perceptions of reality. I cannot imagine enjoying life if i were not trying to piece together disparate information and find relations and meaning.
I get obsessive. I will spend days going over a text or searching documents relating one paper from Germany a couple years ago by some woman who is now a sheep herder to a paper from the 60s on sparse coding in frogs to the paintings of Jackson Pollack.

But i feel powerful. When people look at my work, they are surprised. They see the connections that i draw out and often write papers coming from a valid point that they had not been presented with before.

I got such a vicarious high watching that show. I thought, “oh, what awesome opportunity, what incredible real life puzzles–real new ground–real investigation”. It appeared to be the most incredible thing ever.
People who are bipolar have the capability to do great work along those lines because of the way our minds work–at least assuming you stay in a slightly grounded hypomanic state.

She was on fire.

The most explicit bad behavior i saw was the reckless promiscuity–which was clearly somewhat strategic initially, but she got caught up in it. I don’t know–but it doesnt seem out there. God knows i have no idea how to interact with people.

I loved the series and am happy with it as a representation of bipolar in the media. There has only recently begun to be media referring to the positive aspects of bipolar disorder, and i believe that this show demonstrates that she may be a little fucked up, but she is brilliant and incredibly capable. I feel it is her bipolar characteristics that make her great at her job.

Someone had gone on the colbert report and talked about their research–saying that bipolar has its advantage of giving a manic positive drive to do outrageous things while the depression grounds you to reality at the same time.

Sure she was thrown out of whack, but i imagine a bomb will do that to you, and to one of us crazies, it might throw us farther out.

And, she was right.

Forgive the length, it is late and i should be reading paper stuffs.

Hi, Patricia – thanks for stopping by & thanks for the comment. No worries about the length, I love when readers reply.

I completely relate to what you do – having 50 things going at once and being able to draw comparisons the average bear does not see. Bringing order to extreme chaos was why I was so successful at my career. And, my husband and I really had to laugh when Carrie was going through her highlighter tirade. It’s exactly what I do when I’m working on something.

Thanks for reminding me about the Colbert Report segment. I watched it again. I do agree that we BPs have leadership skills that are much better than the average person. Ghaemi is right, it’s the ability to creatively think your way out of bad situations that sets us apart. The writers of Homeland got that part right. They got Carrie’s passion right, too.

Good luck with the paper!

I wasn’t able to read your entire post (only the first couple of episodes have aired where I live), but I am heartened to read that the show gets it right in some respects.

To be honest, the episodes I’ve seen so far made it look like bipolar disorder would be the focus for her character. I was also irritated with the promiscuity angle. Not everyone with bipolar behaves like that even when they’re hypomanic/manic let alone when they are feeling stressed.

Hi there – thanks for stopping by! I hope you get to watch the entire first season & I’m sorry if my post spoiled any of it for you. 🙂 Yeah, in general they did a pretty god job with the character. I’ve got some definite opinions on the promiscuity too, so when you’re through watching let me know and I’ll post a reply. Take care!

so great that, as you say, it is not advertised as a program about bipolar.
and that bipolar is portrayed as one part of her life, that sometimes impacts her productivity, sometimes does not.
these little inch-by-inch gains in perception are so important in gaining social acceptance and understanding – and hence reducing primary and social suffering

Hi, JCJC…thanks for stopping by and commenting. It amazes me that to this day, when I look at my stats, the Homeland entries are by far the most popular. Carrie is certainly doing he fair share to help fight stigma, even if it is in a small way.

Hi-Homeland is my favorite show, replacing Dexter. I rented it on DVD so my new boyfriend could watch the entire season from the beginning before the 2nd season starts. I don’t remember there being too many holes in the plot(s), which I always find greatly intriguing for a television series. However, after watching the first episode again last night, I realized that the guys who bugged Brody’s house found that pill in Carrie’s bathroom (aspirin bottle). It was clozapine. I am unaware of that med being used for the treatment of BP disorder. Whatever the med found, this is a huge hole in the plot and rather dismisses the entire show…firstly, wrong drug, correct? secondly, there is no way on earth she could hide using this drug from the CIA. There is no way she could fake the drug test unless she stole/replaced the urine and/or results. I know…I do this for a living (30 years worth). SO, unless someone from Langley can tell me whether or not this scenario is plausible, I will ignore this giant plot crater because I do SOOOO want to see what happens next… 🙂

LOL – I was ranting the same to my husband when I saw that episode. Apologies – the first time I read your post, I misread the name of the drug you mentioned. I thought it was Clonazepam, but I see now it was Clozapine. Clozapine is a drug I have no experience with, but it is an atypical antipsychotic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clozapine). Again, to amend my first statement, corporations that administer a pee test (at least all of the large corps I’ve worked in) didn’t screen for that class of drug so it would have been easy to slip by. But, if Carrie was also taking a benzo to keep her anxiety under control, then I’ll stand by my original answer – benzos are screened for and would stand out like a sore thumb.

I’ll admit, I’m hooked o the plot of Homeland. I have a pretty good idea where it is going and I want to win that $10 from my husband. So, I’ll be sitting there in front of the TV with you come the 30th. 🙂

The teaser for Season 2 Episode 1 was terrible, making it unclear whether she was overacting, which the show odes indeed have.
I do not know if the CIA examines urine tests, but I believe that government jobs are difficult to become fired from.
As for doctors, most are trained in diagnosing, but not so much from actual therapy.
Does Electroshock therapy actually stop Bipolar disorder?

Hi, Richard. Electroconvulsive Therapy is pretty interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroconvulsive_therapy. It is effective for managing both depression and mania, but the effects usually do not last so repeat treatments are necessary. Memory loss is common with this treatment, and most of the people I’ve spoken to who have had ECT say they quit for that very reason. Personally, I’ve never had it and won’t consent to it. But…this is exactly where I think the plot of Homeland will meander to sometime during Season 2. You just can’t get around the fact there are adverse affects with ECT and that they can make a great dramatic device. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

I have to weigh in on this thread because readers and viewers are not getting it right. I’ll share my comments here but will post on my wordpress blog in more detail because the record needs to be set straight, somewhere. I’ve been watching the first season of this show and cannot believe how non-believable the entire story is. I’m blown away that so many individuals — including NAMI, who likes to pride itself on being tough on media portrayals of mental illness — think it’s a great characterization and deserves such glorified respect. Wrong and sad. Once again, the media has successfully left mental illness in the Dark Ages. And once again the stigma of mental illness marches onward. To be fair, there are some aspects of the portrayal that are progressive. For example, many people with mental illness truly are brilliant, e.g. John Nash (A Beautiful Mind). On the other hand though, when Nash would stop taking his medication he THOUGHT he was in the CIA. Clair Danes stops taking her medication and actually IS in the CIA! Which is sadly laughable. From a purely clinical standpoint, Homeland has no credibility. It blindly grasps at straws in its depiction of her medical care, and from the spoiler alerts I’m certain it only gets worse. And on another important note, I think the show is adding a lot of fuel to the fire that is our horrific war in Iraq and Afghanistan, propping up support for it’s continuance. So for those two reasons — a bad portrayal of mental illness, and our War, I give Homeland a hard two thumbs down.

Hi, Julia – thanks for replying! I’m not sure if you’ve started watching season two…but what in particular about Carrie’s bipolar in season one is troubling? Granted, as with any show there is an amount of willing suspension of disbelief needed to actually watch it (!). What about Carrie in particular do you object to? Thanks again!

Thank you for your piece, as a fan of Homeland and a person with bipolar disorder, I was curious to find article about the show’s portrayal of this mental illness. My comment is unrelated to the article itself, but more of a general query, why do you refer to yourself as “bipolar” the noun. For example your blog’s title, “Musings on Being Bipolar.” I learned in group therapy that we should not refer to ourselves as the name of the disease itself, but rather differentiate and say “I have bipolar disorder” etc. A person with cancer would not make the claim “being cancer” or “I am cancer” as we commonly do with the our disease’s name “bipolar.” I guess I am curious to hear your opinion, and why you choose to refer to yourself as “bipolar” rather than saying “I have bipolar”

Hi, Sarah. Thanks for commenting! It’s always nice to find another Bipolar fan of Homeland. (BTW, what did you think of Season 2?)

And, you ask a very good question. (I’m going to cheat a little bit and quote a post I wrote last year.) Bipolar is an integral part of who and what I am. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember so I consider it part of my identity. I am a mother, I am a redhead, I am a wife and I am bipolar. I honestly believe I couldn’t have accomplished a lot of the things I have without understanding the full spectrum from mania to depression, and my husband has even said that if I didn’t have the passion I do he wouldn’t be with me.

I agree that a lot of people get hung up on semantics, though. Why doesn’t anyone ever hear a woman say, “I have pregnancy?” Because pregnancy 99.9% of the time is a joyful and welcome state to be in. Why is there still a bias against saying, “I have bipolar?” Because there is still such stigma surrounding mental illness. It is now perfectly acceptable to say you are a diabetic. It is grammatically incorrect to say you have pregnancy. But, let’s face it. No one says, “I am cancer,” because cancer is bad. So, who wants to be it?

So, I’ve reclaimed being bipolar. I’m not saying this disease is wonderful or a breeze to live with. But I am saying it is a part of me and part of my identity. I am what I am. 🙂

What do you think?

Hi, thanks for your reply! I admit I am now a huge Homeland fan — went on a bit of a bender watching all of seasons one and two in about three weeks. I was a bit nervous with how it would all play with Carrie with the scene at the end of season one because of my own experience being involuntarily “checked in” to a hospital. However, I am happy where they went with it in season two. It is nice for me to see such a well-rounded character with a mental illness on tv these days — one that doesn’t fall completely into the stereotypes we so commonly see. I generally feel overly critical of any character with bipolar on tv or in movies, but in this case, I am pretty content with their portrayal of Carrie.

On a side note, just saw Silver Linings Playbook last night (having no idea beforehand that its protagonist had bipolar). I would be curious to see if you have seen it/what thoughts you had. As I said, I find I generally dislike any type of media portrayal of mental illnesses I am familiar with, based on the fact that they tend to overgeneralize the symptoms, and use the character’s disease mainly as a way to magnify the drama of the plot. Anyway, I was a bit mixed with my thoughts on the film, especially because of its conclusion. I did cheat and snooped around a bit online for some articles, but am still unsure of where I stand on the portrayal of Bradley Cooper’s character and the message of the film, in general.

Well, back onto the subject and to reply to your reply of my original comment — I think you do make a valid point here, and I see where you are coming from, knowing that our disease IS such an integral part of our identity. It took me awhile to get to where I am now, in terms of accepting and getting more comfortable with my diagnosis. I am quite new to the online mental illness support network, was mostly struck by the language in your blog and others’ comments because of something one of my first group counselors said in outpatient therapy. She would correct me, and others, when we said “I am bipolar” (my mom, a nutritionist also told me that within the diabetes care community, saying, “I am diabetic” is now frowned upon). I would be interested to speak with this woman again after having dealt so much more comprehensively with myself, mind and my disease, and ask her about what you say. I like the idea you say about reclaiming “being bipolar,” because it is true, that the statement “she’s bipolar” is usually a pejorative adjective used to describe someone, who may or may not have the disease. This is hard for me, although I do validate that I am more sensitive to the language than others based on my personal experience — hearing people constantly saying “crazy” in conversations is also hard for me to stomach sometimes.

Well, thank you for your thoughtful response! I am happy to have found your blog yesterday while randomly Googling something along the lines of “portrayal of Carrie, bipolar, in Homeland” and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

🙂 Isn’t it great to see a bipolar person on TV who isn’t the purp! I swear, when I still lived in the States, every time I would flip through CSI [insert city here] they always had some bipolar crim they were trying to catch. Made me really mad!

I haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook yet, but if it’s OK with you, I can mail you privately when I do and we can talk about it. I would love to know in more detail what you liked and what you didn’t, but right now I need to avoid spoilers 🙂

So, back to how we refer to ourselves/our disease. Again, you make a valid point, that unless someone has fully accepted they have the disease, saying, “I am bipolar,” is almost painful. I totally get that. I also went through a phase where I wouldn’t even say out loud either, “I have bipolar,” or “I am bipolar.” Acceptance is step one in getting help, though. I think that if something defines your life, like bipolar or diabetes, then it’s actually healthier to fully accept it and say I Am rather than I Have. The majority of people I’ve come across in the online mental health community have similar views. [There is quite an online community for bipolar/mental health you can tap in to. If you’d like the name to some other blogs I can recommend, send me an e-mail.]

And, yes! Using ‘bipolar’ and ‘crazy’ as pejoratives is something you just can’t escape. When I first met my husband, he would use ‘psychotic’ as a less than complimentary descriptor. (Now, I correct him whenever it doesn’t fit.) The one I’ve been hearing a lot lately is ‘cray-cray.’ Ugh. But, I know it’s something I’ll never be able to change so I just ignore it. Walking away from the conversation can be pretty liberating, too.

Thanks again for reading my blog! I’m almost done getting the new laptop up and running, so hopefully I’ll be posting more often. Be well!

I was once diagnosed with BP…. But the doc was way to quick to label me/ & I was suffering for years with major depression- I’m pretty good today.
I’m also a big fan of the show & how Carrie portrays her illness – I’m not bothered at all by her sister giving her meds, if they are the right meds, and if she sees her sister and sees how she’s acting ,etc.
I do have a major question that has been troubling me; why can’t carries sister find her a psychiatrist ? Doc client privilege and all that? Someone carries sister knows to be very honest & takes her job seriously as a psychiatrist ???? I’m I being naive to think that it’s possible? Or is it too high of a risk for Carrie to even attempt going outside the circle? I’m just done with seas. 1 – so everyone knows now…. So I guess my question applies to before. Thanks for your article ….

Yeah, BP diagnosis is a fine art at best. Most of us go for an average of 10 years before we get the right dx because there needs to be several cycles before it can be called for what it is. Glad you are doing well, though! MDD is no picnic, but you do have a range of antidepressants open to you that can be tried (BPs cant take antidepressants…they literally make us (me, anyway) crazy/manic)

Homeland…Carrie’s sister could absolutely find her a psychiatrist, but Carrie works at a job where she is trying to keep her condition secret. Check out the next to the last question in this pos, BUT DON’T READ THE WHOLE THING BECAUSE I THINK I PUT IN A FEW SEASON 2 SPOILERS 🙂 🙂 t: http://manicmuses.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/homeland-revisited-q-and-a-with-a-bp-i/

You must b based in EU- I’m in Los Angeles- up all night- finding this site quit informative & interesting – I have a great deal of ailments n it easiest – my pain to read about others n what others do

Think I just answered your question in the last comment – I’m an ex-pat living in NL for the next few years. LA, huh? I bet it’s nice and warm-ish there. I am sitting here watching it snow as I type *jealous!*

Glad you like the site! Sometimes I think my readers’ comments are more informative than my blog 🙂 Check those out, too.


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