Wakefield was never going to be an easy sell. An intense drama unfolding in a mental institution would be tough for anyone to market, but for Australian screenwriter Kristen Dunphy, it was especially fraught. Dunphy had spent decades struggling with severe depression and a panic disorder, leading to several long-term stays at psychiatric facilities. Despite her first-hand experience – and an award-winning career writing scripts for popular Aussie dramas — producers were reluctant to green-light a series set in a psych ward.

Kristen Dunphy, Wakefield’s creator and lead writer, holds up her tap dance shoes, which play an important role in the series. Photo credit: Damian Bennett

Dunphy learned early on that to gain traction for the show, she needed to use what she calls her “basket case” authenticity card. But that was also a risk. “Telling people I have mental illness and have been hospitalized will probably ruin my chances — not to mention my career,” she recalls thinking. It took seven years to get financing for a series about the fine line between sanity and illness.

“People were concerned it would be too tragic,” Dunphy says. “But if it was too funny, it might feel like the audience was laughing at these characters. Having been a patient, I felt I had a license to see the absurdity in some of the situations, and I felt there was a place for compassionate humor.”

Her persistence paid off: Wakefield, produced by Jungle Entertainment in partnership with BBC Studios, premiered on ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, earlier this year to stellar reviews. Critics lauded the eight-part drama—which U.S. audiences can watch on Showtime beginning October 18—as “an original and complex portrayal of mental health,”utterly riveting,” and  “one of the best things Australian TV’s ever made.”

The series has also spoken to viewers, including those who struggle with mental health challenges or love someone who does. “To see it resonate so well with Australian audiences is fantastic,” says Dunphy. “And Americans are at least as mad as us. I hope this helps to reassure people that none of us are completely sane and it’s okay not to be okay. “

Dunphy peppers her speech with words like “crazy,” “mad,” and “bonkers.” And that’s intentional: she’s trying to take the sting out of mental illness and reclaim language meant to diminish people with mental disorders. “Making Wakefield was very freeing for me,” she says. “I was able to turn something devastating into something creative and entertaining and communicate some of the experience of people like myself who have suffered mental illness.” 

Language you won’t find in Wakefield: Labels like schizophrenic, bipolar, and OCD. “These terms are really only a way of categorizing clusters of symptoms and patterns of behavior,” Dunphy explains. “I wanted to avoid using them and reducing things to cause and effect. I wanted to tell stories about people rather than illnesses.” 

To the 57-year-old Dunphy, words matter. “People will say, ‘He’s schizophrenic’ or ‘she’s manic depressive.’ No. That’s a person who is living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It’s not about being politically correct. That is a person first and foremost. Their illness comes second.” 

On the edge

It’s a late afternoon in Sydney, and Dunphy, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words Batsh*t Crazy, is practicing a tap dance at home. She’s relatively new to tapdancing, but I’ve known Dunphy since our university days; whatever she tackles, she tackles with gusto. Her strawberry blonde hair is piled high in a loose bun, and she works up a sweat as her black and white tap shoes rap out a short, simple sequence. She’s pleased with her progress, especially since tap dance features prominently in Wakefield

Diagnosed years ago with panic disorder and major depression, Dunphy talks candidly about her “virus of the soul” these days. Still, she hasn’t always been this unabashed about an illness that has proved particularly hard to treat. “Being in hospital for a mental illness is a hugely humbling experience,” she says. “You feel like you’re completely broken. I had periods in the past where I’d been unwell, but I never thought I’d end up there.”

Treating mental illness, Dunphy says, is like a puzzle. “It takes time to build a picture of what’s wrong and how to treat it.” 

That’s also how she imagined Wakefield, a psychological mystery set in the Blue Mountains, a rugged region to the west of Sydney, known for its cliffs, wilderness and waterfalls. The series is presented as a series of chapters that revolve around the mental health of key characters; there’s romance, workplace conflict, and childhood trauma. 

(L-R): Mandy McElhinney as Linda Crowley, Richie Miller as Omar and Rudi Dharmalingam as Nik Katira in WAKEFIELD. Photo Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Jungle Entertainment/ABC/BBC Studios.

“The central message of Wakefield is that we are all bonkers,” she says. “There’s not a single person I know who doesn’t have their own form of crazy. Obsession, denial, jealousy, road rage, extreme skepticism, belief in luck, illogical fears, compulsive lying, fanatical religion, addiction, sexual fixations, premonitions – none of us is completely sane.” 

To Dunphy, even falling in love is a temporary kind of insanity. “The first three months or so, you’re in some kind of delusional state,” says Dunphy, who has been married for 25 years to Stuart Smith, a high school science teacher. “It’s a beautiful feeling. And it’s quite crazy. Suddenly the world is a brighter place, and you don’t mind doing the vacuuming. People forget how consuming it is and how you can’t really think straight.”  

Dunphy wants to humanize people with mental illness. Since the 1970s, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest “scared the shit out of everyone,” a lot has changed, she says. “What hasn’t changed is our fear of that world, of mental illness itself.”

Wakefield is Dunphy’s passion project. A fellowship for her contribution to Australian screenwriting afforded her the opportunity to research the idea for a TV series about mental illness, drawing on her own battle with the “black dog.” She started by developing an initial reference document titled “Loony Bin,” inspired by her psych-ward stints. 

Wakefield is Dunphy’s challenge to the stigma that she felt for so long. “One of the hardest things about being diagnosed with mental illness is the shame,” she says. “The feeling that you have to hide it. There’s a point when it just becomes too difficult to be around ‘normal people.’ It’s really painful to watch people carrying on with regular life when that’s not possible for you. Being in hospital allows you to be ill.”

She’s talking from personal experience. In 1998 she wrote an entire script while hospitalized; she felt she had to; her family depended on her income. In 2009, she was granted leave from a psychiatric stay to attend an industry awards ceremony. Now she has a dozen years of mental health stability under her belt—a few wobbles during the production of Wakefield notwithstanding—and she wants people with similar experiences, and those who love them, to know there is always hope, that they can enjoy life while managing severe mental illness. 

“I want to give audiences the opportunity to see that many of the states and conditions we call mental illness are really an exaggeration of feelings that most of us can recognize in ourselves,” she says. “Mental health doesn’t discriminate; we’re all susceptible.” 

(L-R): Rudi Dharmalingam as Nik Katira and Harry Greenwood as Trevor in WAKEFIELD. Photo Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/Jungle Entertainment/ABC/BBC Studios.

Back from the brink

Born in the United States to progressive Australians – one an academic, the other an artist — Dunphy was an anxious child, a common trait on both sides of the family. They moved back to Australia when she was four and at 14, she saw a doctor who suspected she had depression, but received no follow-up treatment. In 1982, she took a gap year after high school and travelled overseas with her parents, but cut the trip short and returned when she couldn’t shake her feelings of flatness and desolation. 

In the early 1980s, Dunphy and I attended the University of Technology in Sydney. A natural storyteller, she had a brooding American boyfriend and a penchant for hot chips. I liked her immediately. We bonded over our mixed feelings about the communications program we’d both enrolled in. Back then, my friend struck me as insightful, sensitive, funny —and slightly fragile. 

Fast forward to her mid-20s. Working as a writer and script editor, Dunphy experienced her first mental health crisis when she and her friends shared a stranger’s joint that she’s convinced was laced with something other than pot. Her friends were high for almost 24 hours, but Dunphy experienced a panic response so destabilizing she took two months of medical leave from work. At one point she disappeared for a day on a train ride to the Blue Mountains in a desperate attempt to escape.

She began psychiatric treatment, took antidepressants, saw a psychologist. A few years later, she met her future husband. “I think Stuart knew pretty quickly that he was dealing with somebody who had vulnerabilities,” Dunphy recalls. “I knew right away this was someone significant and that caused a panic reaction I tried to cover up. I tried to run away and that didn’t faze him.”

Smith is no stranger to mental illness. His childhood was spent living on the grounds of psychiatric wards that his father managed. His mother has mental health difficulties and Smith recalls taking care of her, even as a young child. “I grew up around a lot of strange people with afflictions who were not scary to me,” he says. “They were harmless. That world is very familiar.” 

Smith, 61, is matter of fact about his role as caregiver and support person. “Maybe this is an old-fashioned view, but I vowed to look after my wife in sickness and in health,” he says. “I just thought: ‘My wife is sick, she needs me, that’s just how it is.’ A lot of people have it a lot worse. It never occurred to me to leave.” There’s a reason Dunphy’s friends refer to Smith as The Rock. One of the characters in Wakefield, a husband of a patient with postnatal depression, is similarly stoic.

Dunphy has sometimes wondered why he stayed. “I couldn’t see what value I had and felt like I didn’t resemble the person he married,” she says. “He remained so stable throughout all my crises – even when he had a massive bike accident in the middle of one. Our youngest was gravely ill as a newborn during another, and somewhere in there my daughter had a benign brain tumor.”

A crippling depression after the birth of her second child saw Dunphy admitted to a private mental health facility with a mother-and-baby unit. “I felt a complete and utter failure as a mother, a wife and a human being,” she says. “I remember thinking: how can I get better and look after two children at the same time?” Postnatal depression has an extra sting because of pervasive notions around motherhood and how women should feel about their babies.”

She recovered from that episode, and it wasn’t until her children were 10 and 12 that she had another crisis and hospital stay, triggered by personal and professional pressures.

The unrelenting pain of mental illness is hard to describe, Dunphy says. “Your mind becomes an enemy, and you have continual catastrophic thoughts on an endless loop, regardless of what you do,” she says. “I felt suicidal. But there’s a difference between wanting to kill yourself and not wanting to exist.”

It took decades for psychiatrists to settle on a diagnosis, and more years to find a treatment. She tried talk therapy, anxiety management classes, meditation practice, psychiatric meds, and a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement and desensitization reprocessing), which targets traumatic memories) without much success.

In desperation, Dunphy also tried electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for several months about a dozen years ago now. During this procedure—which historically has had a bad rap in certain circles—an electric current is passed through the brain while a patient is under anesthesia. The treatment horrified some of her friends, but it was Dunphy’s favorite time of the week. “For a brief time, I couldn’t feel anything,” she recalls. 

Though she didn’t respond to ECT, Dunphy says she has met people for whom it was a lifesaver. “It’s actually quite common when drug treatments aren’t working,” she says. “I’m not sorry I tried it.” The treatment did leave her with significant short-term memory gaps— like “old cassette tapes when you accidentally hit record” – that family and friends have tried to help fill with timelines and photo albums. 

in 2009, a psychiatrist reviewing her case suggested she try an older, somewhat out of favor MAOI antidepressant, and she finally found significant relief. Learning about her family’s brushes with mental illness helped, too. In his 70s, Dunphy’s father also dealt with a crippling bout of depression. And after Dunphy’s postnatal depression, she learned that her maternal grandmother had given her newborn to her sister to care for while she stayed home in a dark room for three months. There was no name for what she felt back then.

Dunphy’s recovery hasn’t been linear. When she’s unwell, she can be laughing one day and curled up in a fetal position the next. “Everyone is like: ‘What happened?’ ‘How did you do this to yourself?,’” she says. “Because it’s your mind, people assume you have control over it.”

Bringing mental illness to the screen

In Wakefield, lead actor Rudi Dharmalingham plays Nik, a talented, kind and compassionate nurse who seems the sanest person in what is a pretty unstable setting—and that includes staff as well as clients. But when a song gets stuck in his head, a dark secret from his past begins to intrude. The series has moments of levity, but Dunphy was also keen to unpack unsettling aspects of her psych ward experiences: How fellow patients can make you feel worse. How everyone says they don’t belong there. And how some psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses are, in fact, close to the edge themselves. 

“I’ve been treated by 10 different shrinks over the years and two have been diagnosed with mental illness,” she says. “And many more should have been.” 

That’s not necessarily an indictment. “Just because someone’s not mentally stable doesn’t mean they can’t be good at what they do,” she says, echoing a key Wakefield theme.

It was important to Dunphy to have a cast and crew with diverse mental health backgrounds. Actor Matt Nable – who plays a character who thinks he’s former Australian prime minister Harold Holt – has talked openly about living with bipolar disorder and depression. Comedian Felicity Ward, who plays quirky nurse Collette, has a stand-up routine based on her anxiety disorder and hosts a documentary, Felicity’s Mental Mission. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse has gone public about her troubles with depression as well.

During the making of Wakefield, many cast and crew members told Dunphy about their own experiences with anxiety, depression, psychosis, and PTSD. Some also have family members with mental illness, including schizophrenia.

That’s true for her partner in this project. “I’m quite well versed in this subject matter,” says Sam Meikle, with whom Dunphy shares writing, executive producing and showrunner credits. “It doesn’t overwhelm or scare me.” His own family experiences may have come in handy when Dunphy became paralyzed with anxiety and considered ending the project. “One thing about mental illness I’ve learnt is it doesn’t always have its grip on someone,” says Meikle. “Kristen has extraordinary inner resources and a very strong will,” he says. “I understood that ‘this too shall pass.’ I just needed to be patient in the midst of gripping anxiety, which didn’t happen that often.”

Wakefield was filmed during catastrophic bushfires, and Covid-19 shut down production for several months last year. “The threat of being closed down was extremely stressful,” recalls Dunphy. However, “the biggest challenge for me was in the writing. The material was so personal and so terrifying. My greatest fear: working on a show about mental illness in a psych ward would trigger my own panic disorder and send me back into hospital.”

Dunphy has made peace with the realization that she’ll be on medication for the rest of her life. “I have a vulnerability and I have to live with that,” she says. Still, she adds, “I’d love it if there were a cure.”

Dunphy’s battle with mental illness brings up a mix of emotions. She’s grateful that she has found relief, but wishes she’d gotten the right treatment sooner. “I get frustrated with people who see getting off antidepressants as a badge of honor,” she says. “No one questions when people with epilepsy, heart disease or diabetes stay on medications indefinitely. Yet relatives and friends often ask: ‘When are you coming off the drugs? What is the plan? How much longer?’ There’s real judgement to those questions and they’re extremely unhelpful. There should be no shame attached to being on psychiatric drugs for as long as needed.”

Dunphy is keen to see how American viewers respond to Wakefield. “I want audiences to come to love and understand these characters with all their faults. I don’t believe there is and us and them: we are all on a spectrum; we are all so-called normal or we are all crazy.”

This Mindsite News story by Sarah Henry is adapted from an article Henry wrote about Dunphy for The Australian Magazine.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone who is in crisis.  1-800-273-8255