Bipolar Comes Out of the Closet

In Homeland, Claire Danes portrays a brilliant CIA analyst who is determined to prevent another 9-11. Her portrayal of Carrie Mathison, the female protagonist of the cable show, has been lauded with Best Actress awards for two years in a row. Much of the buzz stems from her spot-on depiction of someone with bipolar disorder.

For Carrie and many like her, her mood disorder has a genetic component; her father is also bipolar. Her sister Maggie, a physician, is the ground support for both of them. Carrie displays the behavioral changes that are symptomatic for both the mania and depression of bipolar. During her full-blown manic episodes, we see Carrie talking very fast, her thoughts racing. She behaves impulsively, risking everything, even her job. She moves about restlessly and sleeps little.

Homeland's co-creator and executive producer Alex Gansa has said, "The interesting thing about bipolar disorder ... is that even at the hypomanic stage, which is a degree below the manic stage, these people are incredibly interesting to be with and they are more alive in a way. They fly closer to the sun than the rest of us, and there is an incandescence about them." This is certainly true of Carrie and so many bipolar people I have known.

Meredith Stiehm is a writer and consulting producer for Homeland. Much of her inspiration in writing the character of Carrie Mathison was her bipolar sister Jamie Stiehm. In a letter to The New York Times, Jamie described her real life manic high: "A 'hypomanic' state, which precedes an episode of mania, is in fact an enhanced, alert, productive mood where one can feel exhilarated and immune to life's dangers. I seemed to see into people's hearts when I smiled at them. My speech sped up so much few could understand me. I ran around Baltimore's Inner Harbor at high speed, exulting in all my energy. For several days, I woke up at dawn to see the sunrise and take pictures of it. I felt sure something big was going to happen soon in Baltimore and only I could foresee it."

The show's writers also leaned heavily on the book An Unquiet Mind, the classic on bipolar written by Kay Jamison, who had to keep her illness a secret because of the stigma of being "mentally ill."

Interestingly, Danes, when preparing to play Carrie, found a great source of material on YouTube. As she said, "There was a lot of footage of people who recorded themselves when they were in manic states. ... So I gorged on sort of manic confessionals on YouTube."

When Maggie manages to medicate her out of a manic phase, Carrie plunges into a deep depression, so she decides to undergo electro-convulsive therapy, which is known to help alleviate depression. Lee Thompson Young, the star of the TV series Rizzoli & Isles, wasn't that lucky. Despite taking his medication for bipolar disorder, Young went into a depression and committed suicide this past August. No alcohol or drugs, other than his medications, were found in his system. As Homeland producer Alex Gansa points out, "In 2002 there were 30,000 suicides in this country directly attributable to bipolar illness, and for all 30,000 that actually completed suicide, there were over a million suicide attempts. Maybe Carrie's character can ... create opportunities for people to get help."

You might not be aware of how common bipolar disorder actually is. It affects around 5.7 million American adults, about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population over age 18, and usually is diagnosed around the age of 25. Carrie learned she had the disorder when she was in college.

There are millions of Americans who are being treated successfully for their bipolar disorder, often, like Carrie, not wanting anyone in their workplace to know about their disorder. By having a main character like Carrie depicted so accurately and compassionately on a hit television show, bipolar is being brought out of the closet. Now people are talking about it, admitting to having it, and sharing the type of information that can help others know that it can be managed.

I talk about bipolar and other mental disorders in my new book, Entangled in Darkness, and share lifestyle tips that, in conjunction with medical care, can be helpful to anyone dealing with a mental disorder.