We all love a bit of escapism through watching our favourite film or tv series or perhaps reading a good book. But while fiction can help us understand the experiences of those living very different lives to ourselves, when it comes to mental health conditions, getting it wrong can have consequences like adding to stigma, misconception and increasing unnecessary assumptions, fear or apprehension.
Bipolar disorder, a condition characterised by episodes of mania and depression, and the condition highlighted on 30 March 2023 with World Bipolar Day, has been depicted in various films, TV shows, and literature. While some of these portrayals have been accurate and helpful in increasing understanding and empathy towards individuals with the condition, others have perpetuated negative stereotypes.
One positive portrayal of bipolar disorder can be seen in the TV show “Homeland,” which features a character named Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes. Carrie’s struggle with bipolar disorder is depicted in a nuanced and realistic way, showing the impact the condition has on her personal and professional life. The show has received praise for its accurate portrayal of the condition and has helped increase understanding and empathy towards individuals with bipolar disorder.
Another positive example can be seen in the film “Infinitely Polar Bear,” which depicts a man named Cameron Stuart, played by most Marvel movie fans’ favourite Hulk Mark Ruffalo. The film shows Cameron’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the impact it has on his family. The piece has been praised for its accurate and sensitive portrayal, helping to reduce stigma and increase understanding of the realities of living with mental illness, as well as giving Mark Ruffalo screen time for which the writer of this article is, as a fan, forever grateful.
So those are two widely praised depictions, but other portrayals of bipolar disorder have been criticised for perpetuating negative misconceptions. For example, the character of Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, in the film “Silver Linings Playbook,” has been critiqued for romanticising the condition and perpetuating a stereotype that individuals with bipolar disorder are purely quirky and simplistically endearing.
Similarly, the character of Tara Gregson, played by Toni Collette, in the TV show “United States of Tara,” was another example of fiction not quite reflecting reality. The depiction suggested that individuals with bipolar disorder have “multiple personalities”, a misconception that is harmful and stigmatising, even if the performances from the cast were praised.
And while not actually named in the series as having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the writer and fashionista Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, in the TV show “Sex and the City,” is hypothesised by some fans as potentially having the condition, whether recognised or not.
The reality of these fictious portrayals is, writers of film, tv and literature as well as their directors, actors, publishers and all the creative practitioners involved are statistically likely to experience mental health conditions themselves or know those who do. Pop culture, while fun and escapist for most of us, also helps to increase empathy and understanding of every human experience, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or otherwise. Hopefully we are moving into a time when more realistic experiences are brought to page, stage and screen as it is crucial to promote accurate and sensitive portrayals of all mental illnesses.
Read what it feels like to have bipolar disorder from two people who have generously shared their experiences with MQ:
Robert and Living with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder
What to Know About Living With Bipolar Disorder
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