“It upsets me…that there is an expectation of me to be a horrible person. That’s not true, I don’t go out of my way to hurt anybody,” said 34-year-old Nic Hewitt, an entrepreneur from Cumbria in northwest England. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD) in her mid-twenties, she revealed that when she opens up about her diagnoses, the most common comparison that people make is to Harley Quinn, an animated character from DC comics and movies.
Although a direct reference to the condition is not made, many fans have inferred that Quinn could have both BPD and or bipolar disorder based on the manic and depressive episodes that she experiences. As a result of such media portrayal, Hewitt shared that the most common misconceptions associated with her conditions are that people believe she has “an evil streak” or will hurt someone.
Characters who had a mental illness were 10 times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime on screen.
This propagation of this misconception was confirmed by an analysis of portrayals of psychological disorders on primetime television. It revealed that characters who were identified through behaviour or labeled as having a mental illness were 10 times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime on screen.
Going beyond mainstream media, even non-fiction books sometimes do not help abate these stereotypes. Hewitt pointed to a book called “Bipolar Disorder for Dummies” which she believes is a complete misrepresentation of the condition and depicts people who live with it as “nasty and horrible” and reiterated that it felt like “a list of [reasons] why I’m a bad person.”
Several studies have shown that due to the lack of awareness around mental illnesses, inaccurate and negative information propagated by the media may “reinforce bias against people with mental illness and or cultivate new negative associations concerning what it means to live with a mental illness.” The negative linkage with conditions like bipolar disorder, formed as a result of exposure to inaccurate portrayals, leads to people not disclosing the condition.
But there are some bright spots among the slew of incorrect depictions. An example often cited is the 2012 movie “Silver Linings Playbook” where the protagonist, played by Bradley Cooper, lives with bipolar disorder. “It shows mania and meltdowns in a way that’s real. When he goes out running at night wearing a [trash bag], that’s the extreme,” Hewitt said, adding that they showed the ups and downs of living with bipolar disorder in a way that was real.
Movies that showcase bipolar disorder like “Mad Love” and “Touched With Fire” have also been criticized for romanticizing the illness and playing up the character’s mania or making it seem fun.
According to her, more often than not films and television shows only depict the worst of people’s episodes. “They don’t show the recovery…or when you’re sleeping more, isolating or coming out of a slump because it’s boring,” she said. Other movies that showcase bipolar disorder like “Mad Love” and “Touched With Fire” have also been criticized for romanticizing the illness and playing up the character’s mania or making it seem fun.
The highs and lows associated with bipolar disorder are often depicted by the media as “happiness and sadness or energy and no energy,” said 23-year-old Hemanth, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy. The intern, based out of Tamil Nadu in South India, said that he hadn’t seen the condition represented correctly till he read author Sidney Sheldon’s memoir “The Other Side of Me.”
Diagnosed at the age of 18, Hemanth felt that he strongly related to Sheldon’s tales of experiences with inconsistency and mood swings. Apart from the ups and downs, he added that the book also explored the other symptoms like sleeplessness and irritability that the condition manifests as. The author also discusses how he had to take a break from his career as a result of his mental health, which Hemanth could relate to as he himself had to drop out of college as he navigated life with bipolar disorder.
Hewitt believes that this financial and social impact of living with bipolar disorder is something that the media needs to highlight more often. Because of the stigma attached to mental conditions, she tried to hide her diagnosis and as a result has lost a couple of jobs. “When I go on a spiral, I could lose my job and then my house and so on,” she said, adding that the media tends to dress it up and fails to show these parts of reality.
Both Hemanth and Hewitt acknowledge that bipolar disorder could manifest differently in different people and that creators do have an artistic license and the need to keep the audience hooked. But, they strongly believe that the media needs to stop pushing the narrative that there is a “solution or cure” for the condition. “There’s no happy ending all the time,” Hewitt said.