-[Lilly] Hi! It’s Lilly with Fun4theDisabled. Today we will be looking at the media’s flawed depiction of people with Bipolar Disorder. Depictions of mental illness in general have had a problematic history, from romanticizing disorders such as depression to wildly inaccurate depictions of schizophrenia. Flawed depictions of mental disorders in media reinforce negative stereotypes and the stigmatization of mental health. Today’s society views mental health as a less taboo subject than it’s been in previous decades, which has led to more accurate and positive portrayals in the media. We at Fun4theDisabled hope to highlight the positive portrayals of Bipolar Disorder in media. Realistic depictions of mental illness in media can help normalize discussions around mental health, and make those with mental illnesses feel less ostracized.
[Typewriter] To analyze how TV and film portray Bipolar Disorder, it’s important to understand what the condition really is. Bipolar Disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings. These include emotional highs
and lows. Mania is a period of unusually elevated or irritable mood, intense energy, repetitive thoughts, and other behaviors. People can also experience psychosis, including hallucination and delusion. Hypomania is a milder form of
There are two types of Bipolar Disorder: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is characterized by more severe episodes of mania and depression. People with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder, however, don’t have episodes of mania. This type involves milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with periods of depression. I talked with YouTuber Victoria Fernandez about her experiences with Bipolar 2 Disorder, and this is how she describes it.
-[Victoria] Like one of the ways that I would describe to my psychologist before I was diagnosed is that I felt like I was on my period twice a month. One week I was like super depressed, next week I was super happy, and it just [Laughs] didn’t really make sense, like why I was going to therapy one week and I was so sad, but then the next time I go to therapy I was so happy.
-[Lilly] Now, while being bipolar may sound debilitating, there are plenty of people who thrive while living with this disorder. People like Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato, and even Carrie Fisher have led successful lives and careers despite being bipolar.
-[Victoria] Yeah I think that as somebody who has a mental illness, our brains are wired different. Like they’re just different than other people’s. And you could say that with other like, types of disabilities. And that you just have to find what
makes it special, um, to use that towards your advantage.
-[Lilly] Victoria Fernandez runs a channel called “I Live To Inspire Mental Health” that aims to help others overcome their mental disorder and end stigma around talking about mental health. She has used her experiences with bipolar disorder to offer support for others grappling with their own mental health problems.
-[Victoria] Being sensitive towards other’s feelings, like really putting um, myself in other people’s shoes. Um, I think that that’s a definite strength. I think that society for a long time saw that as weakness. Um, you know, “Being sensitive
is a weakness!” I don’t think so at all because you can, you have a greater uh, emotional intelligence and that can get you really far in life, depending on how you use it.
[Typewriter] -[Lilly] Now that we’re clear on what Bipolar Disorder really is, let’s dive into how the media talks about this condition. Like with most mental illnesses, the media tends to sensationalize and exaggerate the effects of
Bipolar Disorder. One of the most damaging exaggerations is that people with Bipolar Disorder are more violent.
In “Midsommar”, a 2019 horror film directed by Ari Aster, the main character’s sister fatally harms herself and her parents
after the audience is told she has Bipolar Disorder. This scene, while emotionally impactful for the protagonist, could have been done without distinguishing her sister as bipolar. People who don’t know much about Bipolar Disorder may
leave this film thinking that those who are bipolar are violent, but in reality, only 11%-16% of bipolar patients actually experience violent episodes.
Horror movies that use mental illness as a dramatic narrative device, such as “Psycho”
and “Halloween”, further paint people with mental disorders as violent and scary.
The film “Silver Linings Playbook” does a better job of portraying an accurate, well-rounded character with Bipolar Disorder, but it still falls into the trope
of violence. This romantic comedy follows protagonist Pat Solitano, who has spent eight months in a mental institution after beating up his wife’s lover. This film shows Pat refusing to take his medication, which leads to him having
frequent, violent outbursts. Pat is off his meds for the rest of the movie. He meets a woman with an unspecified mental disorder and the two enter a dance competition. By the end of the movie, the two fall in love, and Pat is shown
as getting his life back on track, but it’s implied that Pat never went back on his meds. While this movie has been acclaimed for its depiction of Bipolar Disorder, some critics are worried that this film’s message is simply that
love conquers all, even mental illness. It forwards the idea that for those who are bipolar, medication isn’t necessary.
While we need films that depict mental illness, it’s important that these portrayals highlight the importance of medication and therapy for those with Bipolar Disorder. If not, these depictions could discourage people from seeking help.
[Typewriter] It’s not only TV and film that have an impact on how society treats those with mental illness. News and the internet play an even bigger role in how we view mental health. A study published in Health Affairs Journal found
that the most frequently mentioned topic as it relates to mental health is violence, while only 14% of stories cover successful treatment of mental illness. If the news mostly focuses on violence when talking about mental health, we are conditioned to associate mental disorders with violence and other negative qualities.
The media recently did a poor job discussing Bipolar Disorder after Kanye West made his 2020 bid for president and made several controversial claims to the public. Kanye was diagnosed as bipolar in 2016 and has been openly public about his condition. News articles covered his controversial statements in detail, and people on social media speculated that Kanye’s actions were the result of a manic episode.
Many with Bipolar Disorder, including Victoria, felt that the media’s coverage of Kanye West’s actions were too harsh and placed too much blame on Bipolar Disorder.
-[Victoria] So I, uh, that was last year when all those headlines came out, and I remember thinking like, even my own bias, and I was like, “Wow, like I have this illness.” And I’m looking at these headlines and I’m wanting to read all of them and like, judge this person that I don’t even know who I know has a mental illness, but a lot of people don’t know that. But the media has a responsibility on how they say these things. On explaining okay, yeah this happened but this is why
it happened. There’s always a behind the scenes, because what… so many millions of people go through things like this in their everyday lives, and when people see how the media’s portraying those actions on somebody famous, what are they gonna think about their neighbor? Or their friend that’s going through that?
-[Lilly] Kanye West is a celebrity, and is therefore expected to be under harsh spotlight, but the media needs to consider the fact that he’s still human, dealing with an issue that effects millions worldwide. Many people don’t fully understand Bipolar Disorder. If they see Kanye West’s actions to be speculated as a manic episode, they might start associating Bipolar Disorder with extreme behaviors, which is not accurate. The media needs to stop making a spectacle out of mental illness and start treating this topic with more nuance.
[Typewriter] So we’ve seen what bad portrayals of Bipolar Disorder look like, but what characteristics does a “good portrayal” have? While there are several indicators of a positive portrayal, I’ll be using the show “Shameless”, which
has been praised for its accurate depiction of Bipolar Disorder, to illustrate these characteristics.
1. The depiction isn’t exaggerated. In “Shameless”, the character Ian Gallagher is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. We see him deal
with bouts of mania, but also see the other side of Bipolar Disorder with him stuck in bed for days dealing with depression. Ian’s family is also very understanding, as their mother also has Bipolar Disorder. They advocate for Ian while he is in the hospital after a manic episode, and always make sure that he takes his medication, even when he says that it doesn’t work. We see Ian progress despite having Bipolar Disorder over the seasons. As his body adjusts to his lithium medication and he becomes an EMT, after fighting workplace discrimination for having a mood disorder.
2. The character isn’t depicted as violent because of their disorder. Ian goes through a lot of ups and downs emotionally in the show, but he is never depicted as violent due to his disorder. He is shown engaging in reckless behavior during manic episodes. He dropped out of high school, barely sleeps, and parties endlessly. His behavior isn’t glamorized, and the consequences of his actions are shown when he is arrested later in a season for his behavior. This causes Ian to accept his condition and start taking medications, which leads him to becoming happier and more productive.
As we saw in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Midsommar”, bipolar characters are often depicted as violently unstable, but you can create interesting and flawed characters without resorting to harmful stereotypes. “Shameless” isn’t perfect in its depiction of mental health. There are some aspects that are dramatized for the sake of television, but many consider it a nuanced depiction of Bipolar Disorder. Ian’s diagnosis, struggles, and eventual treatment are explored throughout several seasons in a realistic and responsible way. More shows should take note from “Shameless” and not use Bipolar Disorder as a one-time plot device, but as a complex part of character’s lives.
[Typewriter] Mental health and illness isn’t an easy topic to talk about, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless. It’s important for us to not only understand Bipolar Disorder, but other mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and OCD. We must both educate ourselves and hold the media accountable for the stigmatization of Bipolar Disorder. There is so much that people with mental disorders contribute to society, and we have to make sure
that we don’t only focus on the negative aspects of mental illness.
-[Victoria] I think that we don’t realize how many people have this illness. I, I mean having this YouTube channel has let me, you know, have a lot of different connections with people, even strangers. Um, and I’ve realized that so many
people have Bipolar Disorder, you just don’t realize it. Um, and it can be, like I said before, your neighbor, your best friend. A lot of people don’t talk about these things. And the reason they don’t talk about it is because of the stigma. I’ve seen so many successful people who have Bipolar Disorder, and I think that’s very encouraging because despite, you know, the depressions or the manic episodes, there is still a human in there that is capable of doing so much more than what our minds tell us. And realizing that and getting help is the most important thing.
-[Lilly] This has been Lilly with Fun4theDisabled. If you enjoyed this video, please make sure to check out our other videos in the mental health series. Bye for now!