The Narrative Of Bipolar Disorder Must Change On Screen

March 16, 2016  |  

Breakup Depression


Recently, I’ve seen two pieces of entertainment content that depict bipolar disorder among major characters. In spite of the dual nature of bipolar disorder, characters featured in this content exhibited bipolar mania rather than depression. Though the characterizations of bipolar mania are largely accurate, by focusing on only one aspect of the bipolar experience, entertainment creators are promoting an unbalanced picture of the disease when a more balanced portrayal could help reduce stigma and increase diagnosis.

In the movie Touched With Fire, Katie Holmes plays a poet suffering from bipolar mania who meets another bipolar poet in the mental hospital. Together, they decide to go off their meds and when they leave the hospital, they frolic through New York, write vivid poetry and make bad decisions. Even though you know their manic behavior is dangerous, it still looks like fun when they splash each other in a Washington Square fountain or sneak into abandoned buildings.

My soap opera, General Hospital has had a bipolar storyline as well. Sonny Corinthos, the local mobster, has bipolar disorder and now his son Morgan has been diagnosed. Both characters suffered with bipolar mania, exhibiting erratic thought patterns and behavior. Morgan’s latest manic episode involved him stealing a gun and causing his girlfriend to get shot and sent to the ICU. Of course, there were also delusions and a near suicide attempt from the hospital roof.

Yes, I know how scripts work. You need some action to drive the plot, and with soap operas the action needs to be as dramatic as possible. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is that all this bipolar mania doesn’t show bipolar depression, the other equally dramatic and devastating aspect of the disease.

People with bipolar depression can have long periods of lethargy. Yes, I know someone dragging around or sleeping all day isn’t inherently as dramatic as any aspect of bipolar mania, and crying and overeating may be similarly boring to watch onscreen, but I think it’s possible to make those symptoms seem appropriate in the context of a dramatic work. Illustrate the depressed person’s inner monologue of negative thoughts. Or maybe show the result of their lack of concentration through a tough time at work and a near employment termination. Either of those events would be enough to keep viewers engaged once they care about the characters.

Why do I care so much about portrayals of bipolar mania? Maybe it’s because I experience bipolar depression rather than mania and I want to see myself portrayed in entertainment. Because I realize that with every sympathetic portrayal of my disease may come a bit more understanding in the general population. And with understanding, I can be seen as a whole, competent person rather than less than, as some people believe is the case for bipolars. Greater understanding, less discrimination, more opportunity. Perhaps they can all start with a TV or movie script.

I’m never going to deny creative professionals the right to do their art the way they want to. I’m not even going to deny their right to be slightly misinformed and slightly offensive. But I hope, at least with mental illness, that writers and artists take the time to understand the diseases that they portray and represent them with as much balance and truthfulness as possible.

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