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January 5, 2012

Bipolar Disorder in the Media

How accurate is the media's characterization of bipolar disorder? Does it help educate the public in a positive manner or distort perceptions of what it's like to live with the illness? Let's take a look. In many ways, the media has raised awareness of bipolar disorder through movies and TV programs. However, audiences who are unfamiliar with the illness may be unable to distinguish between actual bipolar symptoms and the film industry's tendency to take liberty with the facts. One of the earliest movies to address bipolar disorder was the 1956 film, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas portraying artist Vincent Van Gogh. Depicting Van Gogh as the archetypical "mad genius," the film essentially chronicles a passionate, but tortured life. The tortured genius theme also prevailed in Pollock, the story of abstract expressionist artist, Jackson Pollock, played by Ed Harris. A reclusive alcoholic who suffered from depression and infamous for his volatile personality, Pollock was never diagnosed. But the film's portrayal suggests bipolar disorder. In Mr. Jones, Richard Gere convincingly played a classic manic-depressive seeking psychiatric treatment. While the 1993 film offered a realistic portrayal of bipolar mood swings, its focus was largely on the relationship that developed between Mr. Jones and his psychiatrist. More recently, the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton, featured the apparently bipolar Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson. A law firm's top litigator and much-needed conscience, Edens stops his medication, resulting in a meltdown and an awakening, propelling him on a quest to right the firm's wrongdoings. Television also has its share of bipolar characters and may even offer more accurate depictions of the illness. Most notable was Sally Field's recurring role on ER as Maggie Wyczinski, the bipolar mother of Dr. Abby Lockhart. The episodes conveyed a largely realistic and compassionate portrayal of the struggles the illness caused between mother and daughter and the importance of staying on medication, while addressing concerns about genetic risk. Realistic media portrayals enable viewers affected by bipolar disorder to see themselves or a loved one in the character, which encourages them to seek treatment or envision themselves successfully managing their illness. And, while soap operas almost never mirror reality, General Hospital's "mob boss" Sonny Corinthos is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and agrees to get treatment and take medication. Actor Maurice Benard, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in real life, plays Sonny. More recently, the character of Erin Silver on the new 90210 series was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a friend whose mother suffers from the illness recognized the symptoms. The episode concluded with a public service announcement about where to get help. If you think you, or someone you know, may be suffering from bipolar disorder, please see a mental health professional. You can also find more videos about bipolar disorder on this website.

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Last Updated:
December 20, 2012