Mental illness in TV: Ian from Shameless

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May be some of you will get this – when I get access to a TV after a long time, I just listlessly change channels in the hope that something great will be on. Late one night, not very long ago, I had access to a TV, and so I started exploring channels. Whilst on this journey, I came across a show called Shameless. It looked a bit deranged, with all kinds of crazy things happening to the characters in the series. I quickly googled to see what the series was about. Its a show that was made originally in the UK, and then remade in the US. I was watching the US version. While reading about this show, I learned that there was a character who was bipolar. I was intrigued, as I am interested in how popular culture depicts mental illnesses, which is often shoddy, rife with stereotypes and oversimplifications. So I was curious about this series, since the episode I was watching on TV at that moment seemed to get some things right.

So I looked for clips on youtube, mostly focusing on this character. I learned a bit about him, and the way this character has been portrayed on TV. [Disclaimer – I haven’t actually watched much of this series. I just watched a couple of back-to-back episodes that were on TV that night, and the rest is all from youtube.]

Ian is from a very dysfunctional family that is barely kept together by an older sibling. Their mother, from what I gather, also suffered from mental illness, and is no longer part of the family. The details of the story or Ian’s character may not be relevant here. Moreover, I only watched isolated clips and had to piece together the story from such bits. The thing that I was most impressed by was the portrayal of Ian’s battle with his mental illness. In the series, they show Ian’s behaviour go from being cheerful and hyper excited, full of new ideas and projects to a full blown prolonged depression. Following this phase, he shows symptoms of paranoia and has a breakdown. As Ian is navigating these phases of his life, one is also shown the reactions of his family and his lover to his changing moods. Their reaction teeters between confusion and concern. After his psychosis episode, he is admitted to a hospital where he is diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I was struck by the honesty of the reactions of both Ian and his family to his diagnosis. Ian really struggles to accept this diagnosis (I missed a few connecting details here). From what I have read about people with bipolar, it seems like the show has got many details correct. Ian’s refusal to seek help or to take his lithium medication is a case in point. Ian’s guilt, confusion, fears and sadness stood out for me, both for the power and honesty of their depiction. This definitely seems like a very real portrayal of mental illness in popular culture. I think such true-to-real-life depictions definitely will go a long way in helping conversations about mental health in the larger society. Kudos to the show’s creators for making this character work.

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