I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2 about three years ago in my late twenties. My psychiatrists held off with this diagnosis for a couple of years - they explained to me, bipolar disorder is not a diagnosis they rush into, particularly as treatment usually involves medication that comes with serious side effects.
When I was told I might have bipolar disorder, in some ways, it was a relief. It felt like an explanation for the way I sometimes felt and behaved. It helped me make sense of this to an extent and gave me a starting point to find out more and read about the experiences of other people with this diagnosis.
But it also meant accepting that I had it for life, which was not a relief. The prevailing medical opinion is that bipolar disorder is a chronic condition caused to a significant degree by underlying biological factors (although these aren’t yet understood). Accepting this meant I might be taking medication for life. When I first read the list of side effects of the medication I’d be taking, my first impulse was to flush it down the toilet. It was scary stuff. But I took it and I feel that medication has really helped me over the years.
It’s really important to me that mental health issues are portrayed accurately on television
I watched Channel 4’s 'Being Bipolar' on Wednesday night with some trepidation. I always feel quite nervous when I see programmes like this advertised because it’s really important to me that mental health issues are portrayed accurately on television, and frequently they aren’t. It’s hard enough having an illness that many people don’t understand without having it misrepresented on national television.
Since my first hypomanic episode, I’ve always been interested in the causes of bipolar disorder. What happened to me felt so unreal and beyond my control. As Sian in ‘Being Bipolar’ also described, it felt like someone flicked a switch in my head. I went from feeling extremely anxious to feeling on-top-of the world, excited, hyperactive, invincible. When my mood changes, it happens for no reason that I’m aware of. When it does, the way my mind works becomes very different. When I’m depressed I don’t feel like myself – I’m very far from my normal way of being and thinking. When I’m hypomanic, I feel like a heightened version of myself. My mood changes often feel very physical. When I start to feel hypomanic, my brain feels like its fizzing. When I’m depressed, my brain and the rest of my body feels dull and heavy.
I’ve always wanted to understand more about why I feel like this. I also want to understand why I have to take the medication I do.
I don’t feel that ‘Being Bipolar’ helped me at all in this understanding.
With any mental illness the interaction between biological and environmental factors is complex
As the programme progressed it became increasingly apparent that the presenter, a psychotherapist with a bias towards environment factors, had undertaken this journey with preconceived ideas and many things along the way seemed to be misinterpreted to fit a preconceived narrative.
The whole area of biological factors was tackled in a very simplistic way, ignoring vast areas of research. Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, probably the most prominent anti-psychiatrist in the UK, was hardly a neutral choice as expert. The discussion around medication not being ‘a cure’ was again simplistic and I think quite disingenuous.
During a discussion in the programme, a neuroscientist stated that hundreds or thousands of different genes are involved in increasing or decreasing the risk of bipolar disorder, that it is not 100% environmental and there are genetic factors involved, but this is just brushed under the carpet as the presenter continues in her belief that “the symptoms each person develops are a result of their life experiences”.
The conclusion is that Sian, one of the participants, “has a choice" and needs to stop being "a slave to her emotions". This is a very loaded term and the tone of the programme regarding medication seemed quite moralistic and paternalistic to me. With any mental illness the interaction between biological and environmental factors, and the direction of influence between these, is complex. Whatever the combination of these factors, if a person chooses to take medication, that is their choice, and it’s a valid choice. Likewise, if they choose not to.
Misrepresentation can result in stigma and discrimination
To me, ‘Being bipolar’ misrepresented bipolar disorder. With a more balanced exploration and with the three participants being more at the forefront of the story, it could have been so much better.
Why does this matter so much? One of the reasons is that this type of misrepresentation can result in stigma and discrimination. I’m really lucky to work for a mental health charity where there is a lot of understanding of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses – my manager is really understanding when I’m not feeling well. Could someone else’s manager have watched this programme and will now blame their employee for being a slave to their emotions? Many people are unable to work at all because of bipolar disorder – will they be stigmatised further than they already are? I really hope not.
Laura has a longer version of this blog, with a more detailed review of the programme, on the Mind guest blog: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/being-bipolar-why-i-feel-let-down/#.VPnEFiwhvro