As of 2020, approximately 21% of all U.S. adults reported living with a mental illness. Though not always easy to talk about, in recent years, Americans have become more open to the conversation, with issues about mental health topics even featured in popular culture.
Media and entertainment can have a powerful influence on public awareness and perception. Characters who cope with their mental health on screen often define and embody that experience for audiences — and may reinforce harmful stereotypes in the process.
Today, there is a growing movement to represent people living with mental illness more authentically in film and television. While progress has been made in destigmatizing mental illness in general, depictions of serious, complex conditions, like bipolar I disorder, are often oversimplified and portrayed negatively.
Bipolar I disorder affects approximately 3 million American adults, causing unpredictable high and low mood swings — also known as manic and depressive episodes — which can be brief or last for extended periods of time. People with bipolar I, a lifelong mental health condition, may experience periods of severe changes in mood, activity levels, and energy, and ability to carry out everyday tasks. Sometimes misunderstood or unrecognized, it may take as long as 10 years for a person to receive an accurate diagnosis.
As dramatic as these symptoms sound, bipolar I disorder can be managed. Many patients with bipolar I can live multidimensional lives. A combination of consistent treatment, therapy and peer support can help patients manage their symptoms of bipolar I. Despite this, the stigma associated with bipolar I disorder, as sometimes dramatized in movies and television shows, may discourage people living with the disorder from seeking the help they may need.
One way to educate and influence perception is by hearing stories of people with bipolar I. This Is My Brave (TIMB), one of the leading patient advocacy groups for mental health, anchors their mission on the belief that storytelling can help save lives. Sharing TIMB’s vision, this partnership aims to move the world closer to the point where people can talk openly about mental illness without being singled out as “brave.”
“We’re starting to see more realistic representations of bipolar I disorder in entertainment, which is encouraging — characters on television shows like ‘Ozark’ and ‘Insecure’ come to mind as balanced, multidimensional portrayals of the disease,” says Erin Gallagher, executive director of This Is My Brave. “Hollywood has always played a critical role in shaping public perception. Together, we can change preconceived notions to help those with bipolar I disorder know that they are not alone and feel empowered to seek the help that they need.”
In partnership with leading patient advocacy groups, AbbVie wants to help lift the stigma around bipolar I disorder — and is inviting the entertainment industry to join in.
Here are some general tips that can be used in Hollywood to foster more accurate depictions of people who have bipolar I:
- Listen to real patient stories and speak with bipolar I experts. Bipolar I disorder is one of the most misunderstood disease states in mental health, so it’s important to research the condition to help shape an accurate depiction. People living with bipolar I disorder often experience both mania and depression. During these episodes, they can experience a range of symptoms that vary for each individual. Take time to speak to people living with bipolar I disorder and seek out information from support organizations or other educational resources.
- Illustrate that bipolar I disorder can affect anyone. Be mindful of diversity within the community by representing how mental illness can impact someone of any age, gender, ethnicity or demographic.
- Define characters by storylines other than their mental illness. Show the multidimensional lives of characters with mental health conditions like bipolar I disorder. Portray various aspects of their life including family, job, relationships, hobbies, etc.
- Avoid negative stereotypes. Accurately depict characters with mental illness without overemphasizing negative traits. For example, criminals in fictional shows are often portrayed with polarizing mental health conditions, such as bipolar I. This type of association further adds to the burden of stigma within the community.
- Acknowledge medication and treatment. If a character with bipolar I disorder shows extreme behaviors, it is important to show that those behaviors may be due to lack of adherence or response to their medication or that the character is not being treated for their condition. When depicting characters with balanced lives, consider acknowledging they are under the care of a physician and their bipolar I is being managed with therapy, medication and peer support.
The importance of mental well-being has been an increasingly relevant topic in recent years. More than ever, many people are dialing into discussions surrounding mental health and are eager to learn more about what they can do to help. Advocacy for mental health should always be a top priority — inclusive of conversations between entertainment industry professionals and the bipolar I community.
Dedicated to tackling the complexity of mental illness for over 30 years, AbbVie hopes to spotlight the critical need of accurate representation of bipolar I disorder across media and entertainment, with support from patient advocacy groups and industry leaders.
“[We are] deeply committed to helping those afflicted by complex and debilitating mental illnesses and are working to help lift the stigma around bipolar I disorder in particular,” says Julie Adams, executive medical director at AbbVie. “Millions of Americans live with bipolar I disorder, and we want to help provide patients resources and support. We hope that people living with bipolar I are better represented on big and small screens, reducing the stigma they may face on their respective journeys.”
Sponsored by AbbVie
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