Showtime series explores mental illness
New TV series explores life with Dissociative Identity Disorder
The United States of Tara, a new series on Showtime, explores the life of a woman with a serious mental illness – and a local psychiatrist was asked to review the scripts and inform the show’s dialogue. From WHYY’s Behavioral Health desk, Maiken Scott reports:
At first glance, Tara Gregson, played by Toni Colette, has a busy life with ordinary challenges – a demanding job as a designer, a rebellious teenage daughter – and she finds solace in discussing her life in a video journal:
Gregson: This is Tara – obviously- it’s Thursday the 12th, I’m under a lot of pressure lately..
The thing is, when Tara is under pressure, her alter egos come out. Tara suffers from dissociative identity disorder – formerly known as multiple personality disorder. When problems and stress build up her alter egos take over – one is T – a teenager who raids Tara’s daughter’s closet for outfits:
Daughter: Are those my new skinny jeans?
T: Don’t they make my ass look fine?
Daughter: Sure, fine for 40..
T: Do you know how much it blows, being 15 and stuck in this ancient body? And look, I have a muffin top!
Another alter ego is Buck, a chain-smoking, beer-drinking veteran who butts heads with Tara’s husband Max…
Max: Hey, don’t smoke in here, okay man?
Buck: I only smoke when I party.
Max: Well, this isn’t a party.
Buck: Says you…”
Kluft: If you look at each personality as an attempt to solve a problem, a way to think outside the box, then Buck is a way of dealing with situations of vulnerability that are intolerable.
Dr. Richard Kluft is a professor of psychiatry at Temple University, and worked as a consultant on the United States of Tara. Kluft has been treating people with dissociative identity disorder, or DID for years. He said when the call came from the series’ producers, he decided to get involved even though he doesn’t usually like to see mental illness played for comic effect.
Kluft: I wanted to see if I could reduce the ouch factor and help people see that when you treat a disorder that usually is kept in the closet and hidden, when you treat it as a normal circumstance, it might actually turn out to be de-stigmatizing and helpful.
The ouch factor was also what journalist Liz Spikol was worried about. Spikol writes about mental health for the Philadelphia Weekly.
Spikol: I was initially skeptical, because I thought oh no, here we go again, another treatment of mental illness that’s going to make it look childish, and caricatured, and stereotypical…
Spikol says the United States of Tara is “good TV” but,
Spikol: I am a little disappointed by the characterization of somebody who has dissociative identity disorder.
Spikol thinks Tara’s different personalities are over the top – they are portrayed as very distinct and developed, they are highly visible and come out all the time. Psychiatrist Kluft agrees – this is not how the disorder usually presents itself.
Kluft: Most multiples are as interesting to watch as drying paint, they’re just suffering human beings whose suffering takes on a particular form, mostly inward rather than outward.
In Kluft’s experience treating this disorder, only about one in 20 DID patients exhibits highly visible alters. The rest of the patients have more of an internal dialogue, that may be perceived as ‘acting out of character’ by others. DID in general is a very controversial diagnosis – with some mental health experts questioning if it exists at all. At Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr William Uffner says the disorder is overdiagnosed – in part because of media exposure.
Uffner: Overzealous therapists and social and cultural phenomena can shape symptom formation.
Uffner says the diagnosis of DID skyrocketed after the movie Sybil came out in 1976, a dramatization of the life of a woman who had 13 different personalities.
Uffner: Everybody became enchanted with this dramatic, exotic disease.
Whether viewers will become enchanted with Tara is yet to be seen – the show has gotten mixed reviews from critics, but in terms of viewership, Tara has scored higher than Showtime hits like Californication and Dexter when they were first launched.
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