The Bipolar Badge and By-lines

14 04 2011

Isn’t it strange the number of ‘slebs who suddenly have bipolar disorder?

A disorder that affects around 1% of the population seems so prevalent amongst tabloid fodder.

Its becoming quite a fashionable label to acquire and it seems that for many ‘slebs, it’s far more credible to have an incurable condition like bipolar than to admit to having periods of unipolar depression or plain old stress.

I spoke many years ago to a sleb who claimed quite publically in the media to have bipolar disorder. We worked together and I was curious to know of her experiences with swings between extreme low moods and hypermania.

She will *always* remain nameless but I will share what she told me,

“Oh I don’t get hyper, I just get depressed.”

With that in mind, I had to ask how then she came about her diagnosis and she said,

“when you have enough money and you have a career to protect a good doctor will say anything you want. I didn’t want to be labelled a sad depressive in the media and bipolar sounded so much better.”

What she implied at the time was that essentially a diagnosis of bipolar, with its genetic and chemical basis, removed responsibility of recovery from her in the way a diagnosis of unipolar depression wouldn’t. She claimed depression was considered a weakness by the media and it would damage her career whereas bipolar in its incurable state would get public sympathy and more mileage.

Of all the relatively recent celebrities who claim to have bipolar disorder in one of its varying guises, the only ones who have managed to convince me of this is Adam Ant and Frank Bruno whose struggles with the condition were evident as was their medication with lithium. Neither wore it like a badge and were honest about their struggles with both depression and mania.

Spike Milligan’s struggles with the condition are well documented and you could never have questioned his having lived with such a horrific and disabling illness. It made him the man he was just as it broke him time and time again. Its a cyclical illness. Doesn’t just happen the once for a day or so.

You see, what I don’t think these fashion-label ‘slebs understand is that having your mood swing between depressed and “happy” is absolutely nothing like severe depression and mania. Mania isn’t just being happy with life, it’s a horrific experience where control is lost, reality is warped and everything speeds up 1000 times faster than normal. It may start off an enjoyable experience but within a couple of days it turns into a nightmare that doesn’t just go away with a bit of ego massage and a couple of days of therapy at the Priory.

And another thing that pisses me off about this “media-manic depression” is the number of ‘slebs who get diagnosed during or after severe drug habits or use. I am well aware that using certain illegal drugs can bring on experiences similar to mental illness and that many habitual users end up permanently changing their brain chemistry to such an extent they display symptoms of mental illness, long-term or for life. I am also aware of the argument that many people with mental illness may turn to “self medication” with class A’s to counteract or mask the symptoms they experience.

But, why is it then that so few celebrities with diagnosis of bipolar were symptomatic prior to their drug habits? Why do none of them receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia which is far more prevalent amongst habitual recreational drug users? Why are they not wearing their schizophrenic badge in the same way they would their bipolar badge?

Of those ‘slebs who also claim to have it, including Russell Brand (diagnosed after kicking drugs), Robbie Williams (class A habit prompted diagnosis), Axl Rose (Drug fiend), Ozzy Osbourne (known drug affectionado), Kerry Katona (drugged up mother) and many more, excessive drug use seems to be a theme.

I have also met quite a few non ‘slebs who claim to have manic depression without fully understanding what that means.

You cannot have bipolar disorder without some kind of swing between high and low. These swings between high and low are disabling, not pleasant and certainly not a reason to push for a front page story with a red top.

So now Catherine Zeta Jones is claiming her husbands cancer treatment brought on Bipolar II. She needed hospital treatment for all of 5 days. It’s not quite the same experience most who have bipolar disorder have. 5 days is nothing. Treatment for most non-celebs lasts into weeks and often months in over used and under-funded ageing psychiatric units.

There could be something in my ex-colleagues comment above about money getting you what you want. Is it a statement on current mental health care when someone who can afford to pay $1000 a day for specialist care only needs 5 days impatient treatment compared with those on the NHS who need months?

And then its important to consider also, that anyone who suffers extreme stress for any reason can have lapses in good mental health which can be similar in appearance to depression, bipolar or even schizophrenia, but any good mental health professional would be able to distinguish someone experiencing stress from someone who has full on mental illness.

It’s good to highlight the prevalence of mental illness in the media and it can do much for stigma problems in society. However, the average person’s experience of being bipolar isn’t all flowers at the Priory from Pres. Obama and a book deal at the end of it all.

It’s a long, drawn out, draining and demoralising process.

Chances of employment are greatly reduced with such a label, there are no book deals and chat show rounds for Joe Average, just years of multiple medications and soul-searching. It’s not all hollywood for people who suffer at the hands of severe and enduring mental illness, and while highlighting more high-profile people as being sufferers can benefit public perception, it can also damage it.

Mental health organisations leap on the stories of mentally ill ‘slebs as a fantastic revelation and suggest society must sit up and listen now… but when so many of these part-time bipolar ‘slebs recover within days of an “episode” the uninformed public may expect the same of Joe Average, and this is just not real life.

The difference between Hollywood and Holyrood is immense. Just as real life weight loss doesn’t happen overnight, neither does recovery from severe and enduring mental illness.

But why let reality get in the way of a good publicity stunt?







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