Here’s What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Bipolar Disorder

Experts weigh in on Empire and other TV shows and movies that portray this mental illness.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so the timing couldn’t be more right for Empire to further delve into its characters’ relationships with mental wellness.

Andre Lyon, the eldest son of Lucious and Cookie Lyon and de facto financier of their company, has ultimately been able to manage his bipolar disorder — otherwise known as manic depression, an illness that causes “unusual shifts” in a person’s behaviors and activities — and hopes to use his family’s music mogul status to help de-stigmatize the illness in the public sphere. But now his grandmother, Lucious’s mother, is being brought back into the fold from the institution she’s been living at all these years, so the show will explore her many abuses against Lucious as a child, while she was unwell. Which means we’re about to see a whole new side to why Lucious has had so many qualms about his son’s diagnosis.

We spoke to some experts on the subject of bipolar disorder about Empire and other pop culture mediums to find out how accurate (and inaccurate) the mainstream depiction of this illness is so far.

  1. Empire

    Fox

    What’s important about the Andre’s bipolar plotline, per Dr. Ruth C. White, Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, is that he is presented as a highly ambitious and active person whose achievements aren’t extraordinarily hindered by him coping with this illness.

    For Dr. White, he’s ultimately well depicted as a man who does what he is supposed to do. “He sees his doctor to tweak his meds on occasion and goes to work and functions and doesn’t fall apart when his baby dies,” she says.

    This is much more realistic to the everyday experience than other narratives, which have been known to exaggerate the disorder to dangerous proportions, representing those who grapple with the illness as highly dysfunctional or dangerous people, rather than ordinary individuals with ordinary existences.

    Lucious’s mother looks to be an example of that exaggeration, as the life-threatening violence she’s inflicted upon her son is very rare in bipolar patients. Studies show that most bipolar patients are actually not violent and that even among those who have committed violent acts, there are other factors — chiefly substance abuse — that may heavily contribute to the behavior.

    “It is really important for people not to think of [bipolar sufferers] as walking time-bombs that will destroy other people,” cautions Dr. White.

  2. Law and Order: SVU

    NBC

    Law and Order: SVU is one among many crime shows that have misrepresented bipolar disorder as well. In the seventh season of the series, for example, a teen character named Jamie (Brittany Snow) stands accused of murder after she mows down a group of people, killing one of them, in a suicide attempt triggered by her being found to have falsified an allegation of rape.

    In the episode, Jamie is shown as a loose cannon who refuses to take her medication, which is exactly the kind of mainstream misconception Dr. White has been teaching about in her coursework at USC.

    “I use specific examples from shows like Law and Order or even ER, where the characters with bipolar disorder wouldn’t take their meds and ended up committing serious crimes against others,” she explains.

    Medicinal non-compliance a common theme among all illnesses — the CDC estimates that about 50 percent of patients do not take medication properly as prescribed — and the known side effects associated with anti-psychotics can be very severe.

    “[It] is a skewed and uni-dimensional picture of bipolar disorder,” says Dr. White. “There is the typical portrayal of non-compliance with medical advice that leads to disaster.”

  3. Homeland

    Showtime

    The central character of Showtime’s hit drama series, Carrie (a role for which Claire Danes has won two Emmys) is a tactical genius CIA agent whose situational intuition is frequently intertwined with (and occasionally inhibited by) the highs and lows of her bipolar disorder.

    For Nathaniel Friedman, a bipolar writer whose personal take on the show’s treatment of the disorder has been widely revered, the character’s representation of the illness is impaired by the hyper-frequency and plot device convenience of her mania episodes.

    “It’s like, ‘we need something to go down, we need an exciting twist to turn, so let’s have the character have a manic episode and then who knows what’s going to happen?’ It’s used as a weird sheath,” says Friedman. This hectic and topsy-turvy characterization of Carrie’s experience is something of a caricature that helps drive the drama, rather than her road to wellness.

  4. Silver Linings Playbook

    The Weinstein Company

    The Oscar-nominated film is celebrated for some highly relatable moments of mania on-set for its central character — Bradley Cooper’s Pat — as he struggles to temper his episodic mania in some especially poignant scenes, like during his harried search for his wedding tape in the wee hours of the morning.

    But the movie, while overall a positive image of the disorder, is also not without its issues, as Pat is shown as having several sudden fits of volatility throughout the film — attacking his wife’s lover, for example — which is something experts caution is a common media misconception about the disorder.

    As Dr. Skip Dine Young, Professor of Psychology at Hanover College, explains to us, while “individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder can be aggressive, it is not the norm. This point can be made about many forms of mental illness.” If Pat’s other symptoms were more pronounced, rather than this aggressive behavior, it would have been that much more realistic.

It is estimated that about 2.6 percent of the American population grapples with bipolar disorder, so it is encouraging to see films and television taking on the challenge of representing the condition to the public. But, as these stories show, it is important that we understand that a person who has bipolar disorder is not necessarily going to be ultra violent or unemployable or frequently unstable, even if it does make for good TV to depict them as such.