How The Media Negates The Bipolar Experience
Content Warning: Suicidality, Self-Harm
“Everyone’s a little bit bipolar!”
As a person with Bipolar II, this remark irks me immensely. The way Bipolar Disorder is represented in the media grossly misinforms the general public. Either blown vastly out of proportion or reduced to a joke, these portrayals perpetually betray the actual experiences of individuals with Bipolar Disorder. Misinformation makes it harder for others and myself to navigate our disorders because we cannot receive the understanding and support we desperately require. We are constantly judged for our condition and treated with prejudice. The only way to be acknowledged for who we really are is to destigmatize the bipolar experience.
Bipolar disorder is a biochemical disease, meaning people with bipolar disorder literally have a biologically different brain chemistry from those without the disease. Bipolar Disorder is often generalized about without distinguishing between the different types. Bipolar I and Bipolar II, the most common variants, are described by the National Institute for Mental Health as:
“Bipolar I Disorder— defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depression and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible.
Bipolar II Disorder— defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes described above.”
Hypomania and mania often express as euphoria, high energy states, and delusions of grandeur, among other symptoms. Hypomania is often viewed as a less extreme version of mania. Typical treatments for Bipolar Disorder include psychotherapy, medication, and self-management strategies.
When one thinks of bipolar depression, they may imagine someone with very low energy who can’t get out of bed. However, my depressive states often include mixed features, meaning I have symptoms of depression and hypomania. These states are very dangerous for me. One minute I can be desperately pacing back and forth muttering to myself about the agony I’m in, and the next minute I can have a pair of scissors pressed against my wrist. I try to be alone as little as possible during these states because not only am I suicidal, but I have the restless, impulsive energy to actually follow through with such acts. Mood states with mixed features (especially mixed depressive states) are not well known to the general public, but they are some of the most dangerous. The impulsivity of hypomanic/manic symptoms along with the suicidality of depressive symptoms increases the risk of attempting suicide by at least 50%.
I am on medication and relatively stable, but I still have mild swings, which can manifest as excessive shopping, suicidal rants, and all-nighters. I will never be cured of my disorder, and despite being on medication, it is and always will be a significant part of my life. It is something I tell people about because I want to break down the stigma. “Look at me! I have bipolar disorder but I work and am a student and do all this cool stuff!” It is sad I feel I need to prove myself worthy because of my disorder. Feeling the need to be open about my illness yet resenting having to prove my self-worth is a stressful internal conflict. The harmful representations of Bipolar Disorder in the media don’t help.
Inaccurate pop culture portrayals can make individuals with bipolar disorder confused about their experiences. They can also misinform family and friends of what their loved ones are experiencing. For example, there are many portrayals of individuals with Bipolar Disorder throwing their medication away and achieving a magical recovery. Although medication is not the only form of treatment, the frequency of this anti-medication portrayal has created a toxic belief that everyone can overcome bipolar disorder without medication. This can disturb the recovery of those that are genuinely benefiting from their medications, or might be if they were willing to give medication a chance. This all paints the bipolar experience as less serious than it is, and erases the danger and devastation that can come with these mood states. The stigma even warps our language, with outdated psychiatric terms like “maniac” being broadly used as a derogatory term for anyone experiencing mental illness.
I’m tired of the constant dance of when to tell people about my disorder and when to keep it under wraps. The demonization and trivialization both serve to muddle the bipolar experience. They erase the fact that each bipolar person is an individual with their own differences-- different ways of experiencing bipolar disorder, different ways of coping with it, and different ways of treating it. We are individuals just like anyone else, and we don’t belong under one umbrella. Don’t let irrational fear resulting from stigma hold you back-- get to know us. We’re not raving maniacs, and we shouldn’t have to prove it to you. To learn more, read these collections of personal accounts from individuals with Bipolar Disorder: Time to Change and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Edited by Ivy Quigley.