Media portrayal of bipolar disorder
Recently in mass media we’ve witnessed great leaps of awareness about relatively common mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety. With that awareness there has been a decline in the negative attitudes that used to surround them. These are now readily discussed without shame. They are mostly represented in the media with a well-informed grasp of the facts thanks to effective information campaigns.
However, severe mental health conditions, such as psychosis and bipolar illness remain shrouded in stigma and are consistently misrepresented and misunderstood.
The media at times tend to focus on the dramatic side of bipolar. In the early stages of my diagnosis, I felt embarrassed by the misrepresentation of the illness. The levels of behaviour depicted in manic periods, was not something I could relate to. For someone who has not experienced bipolar disorder it paints an inexact picture of what the sufferer is going through.
Studies have found that over half of all mentally ill characters in TV and movies were portrayed as being dangerous to others. There has been a small improvement in the last 5 years. Directors of TV shows now spend researching bipolar disorder. They involve people with mental health issues as part of their research. I’ve seen characters having full manic episodes, but I have yet to see a character in a hypomanic state.
One well known soap depicted a character having a manic episode. On one occasion he went out and bought nine TVs. I understand the logic. It portrays the character as unhinged. Excessive spending is a characteristic of bipolar. I believe it could have been portrayed more accurately if he was buying an expensive car that a person couldn’t afford, rather than buying nine of the same items. Then again, soaps live off dramatic story lines.
I’ve seen ill-advised journalists writing for national newspapers referring to bipolar II as a made-up illness. I have to say it infuriates me that a journalist would write an article on a sensitive subject and do no research. It was a condition that celebrities clung on to, which helped them explain strange behaviour. Is it any wonder people think it’s an illness of choice if this is the information that is out in the public domain?
As with stigma we are moving in the right direction but we’ve a long way to go. I have done some media work in a bid to chip away at the lack of understanding of the illness. In particular, the older generation will forever associate mental illness with asylums. There is shame embedded in that section in society which will never be fully erased.
This blog is by Liam Gildea as part of a blog series for World Bipolar Day (March 30 2023).