Media and Mental Health

So yesterday at work we were passing around an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about childcare centers that had been fined recently. Very Interesting Stuff. Part of my job is to support individuals with disabilities in child care centers — basically, to teach child care centers how to naturally include children with disabilities into their programs.

 Some of the citations were amusing. Like the one where a small child was left behind in a classroom unattended for quite some time, and was only discovered when the center’s director was giving a tour to prospective members. Others were rather shocking. Like the one where a child was tied to a chain link fence with a jump-rope. In front of a state investigator. Kind of makes you think twice about where you take your child to be looked after while you’re at work, doesn’t it?

I read aloud for my co-workers a passage about one teacher whose personality was described as going from smiles to hysteria in short periods of time. She would be chipper one second, and then screech at children, swear at them, and then, according to the complaint, threaten to cut her throat with a pair of scissors in front of the children in her care.

From across the room, my co-worker yells, “Sounds like bipolar.”

Another co-worker concurred.

I just sighed heavily.

I have bipolar disoder. I am not “out” at work. Not yet anyway. I was out at my last job. I was semi-out at the job prior to that. It always has mixed results. This time around, I just want to be perceived as a normal person, so I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want my potential actions, my sick days, my personality attributed to my mental health diagnosis — because all of those things have happened in the past. I don’t want the spectre of bipolar disorder following me around like a cloud. I don’t want the label attached to my name.

But when I hear comments like the one above, when I hear people labelling every bizarre, crazy, dangerous, cruel behavior as bipolar — it makes me cringe.

Bipolar disorder(s), because I truly believe they are a spectrum disorder, have increased in diagnostic frequency by 40 times over the last several years, primarily among children. Have cases of bipolar disorder in the general public actually gone up by 40 times? Doubtful. Have people been seeking more mental health care in the last few years, to the tune of being able to diagnose 40 times more cases of a single mental illness? Likely not. I was diagnosed within the last few years, so I was among that 40 times. I happen to benefit from the meds, and my behavior was wildly erratic prior to treatment. I think the diagnosis fits. But I find it suspect that it has become the mental illness du jour, just as depression was the mental illness du jour of the 1990s — and coincidentally I was diagnosed with unipolar depression in 1994.


Pharmaceuticals, that’s why. Prozac came out in the 1990s, and all of a sudden, people started paying a lot of attention to depression. There was a brand new way to treat it. Even if you only had a slight depression, something that could probably benefit from good old talk therapy, you could buy your way out of it in the old-fashioned American way by swallowing a pill and getting on with it. Now that there is a bazillion SSRIs out there, we’ve moved onto Bipolar Disorder. It used to be lithium and depakote (valproic acid) were the two mainstays for Jimi Hendrix’s Manic Depression. With the advent of newer anti-convulsants, atypical antipsychotics, and brain imaging, there’s a whole lot of new drugs to throw at the moody brain.

Unfortunately, while depression got a lot of positive press, bipolar disorder has not.

Take Britney Spears. There has been a media feeding frenzy surrounding her for months now, with several speculations that she has bipolar disorder. We don’t even KNOW her diagnosis, IF she even has one. The PRESS has chosen to pathologize her, and label her with Bipolar Disorder. This is the press that the illness receives. All of us are screechy, threaten to cut our throats with scissors in front of children, shave our heads and then proceed to wear horrendous extensions on our nearly-bald head and parade around in t-shirt dress things with no panties.

What is particularly troubling to me is that we are very quick to label Britney, the daycare teacher, and any other woman with seemingly “outlandish” behavior as Bipolar while male figures can get away acting exceptionally juvenile and it’s deemed as socially appropriate. We do not pathologize this behavior — we do not call them mentally ill, lock them away, or medicate them. Look at that nefarious tool, K-Fed. What was he doing prior to the press demonizing Britney? Um, attempting a career as a white rapper with an unfortunate song called “Popozao,” spending his ex-wife’s hard earned cash, chain smoking and drinking, not taking care of his children by his prior marriage — (let’s not forget he left that woman while she was PREGNANT WITH HIS CHILD to hook up with Britney), getting paid to make club appearances, and extending the life of the trucker-hat-and-wife-beater trend far too long. So, basically nothing.

That freeloading overgrown man-child is now being glorified in the press and giving interviews stating that Britney was a “bisexual sex-fiend” who didn’t know how to parent and his friends are claiming it’s great he is around because he’s a wonderful father. Where would his children be without him. Meanwhile, his ex-wife has been institutionalized twice, and her goddamned psychiatrist is giving interviews about it.

Jesus Christ.

It disgusts me.

Here’s the problem, people. The frequency of many serious mental illnesses, such as Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are gender neutral. What that means is that they afflict men and women equally. What makes them serious is their ability to ruin lives either through disrupted home placements, loss of work, loss of social connections, repeated hospitalizations, and potential loss of life. Indeed, 25-50% of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide. That number goes up when there’s a co-occuring issue, such as substance abuse. Many people with mental illness self-medicate. It’s not a fucking joke. We shouldn’t just be tossing out labels because someone’s behavior appears erratic.

Furthermore, women need to be especially careful about how they speak about each other. We have a double responsibility: Feminist theory holds that because of our place in the society in which we live, we are going to react differently, suffer differently, be affected differently — and we therefore may end up utilizing mental health services as a result. Because of the culture in which we live, we may wind up with mental health issues. Which means, we may wind up pathologized and medicated by the very system that has caused the pathology and the medication to treat such pathology. We have an inherent responsibility to be sensitive to that, and to speak sensitively about that. It does us no good to speak outside ourselves and label others with disorders without recognizing how we and the rest of the culture around us may have contributed to that disorder. Acting in an us vs. them philosophy — where US is non-mentally ill, non-afflicted and THEM is sick, mentally ill — is a non-feminist worldview

It won’t do anybody any good to see themselves as any different as the person with bipolar disorder or depression or schizophrenia. Whenever I do out myself at this job, I will have to make that point. Speaking about people with mental illness means they are speaking poorly about someone directly among them.



  1. shinobi42 said,

    February 22, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I always defend Britney Spears. I don’t really know why, it isn’t like I enjoyed her music or appreciate her intellectually or anything. And normally when people I know let their lives spiral down into chaos I expect them to be responsible for the choices they make. But for some reason I feel like Britney is special, it is almost like society, the press, america did this to her. I don’t know if that is true, I just find it hard to say “well she did it to herself” about Britney.

    I really think that a girl who spent her formative years trying to be both a virgin and a whore is going to have some issues. (Whore in the videos, Virgin in real life.) The fact that she was held to this kind of standard was unfair to her, but she was expected to be virginal and chaste while shaking her ass. It makes my brain hurt, I can’t imagine what it did to hers. Not to mention the pappartazzi attention, her total lack of privacy, crazy online videos, it can’t be easy to deal with that level of media scrutiny. I think it all drove her insane, as it has so many others.

    “Leave Britney Alone!”

  2. bookwyrm said,

    February 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    I honestly can’t decide whether it’s progress that said coworker yelled “Sounds like bipolar” rather than “She must be on the rag.” Its not like we didn’t always have an explanation for women’s moodiness. At least now its seen as likely unique to the individual rather than defining of the entire gender. I think that’s a step in the right direction. I think.

  3. thoughtracer said,

    February 22, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Well that’s kind of my question, bookwyrm. Is it unique to the individual? Or is the mental illness caused by the culture and climate in which we live? And, is labeling one woman’s moodiness with a mental illness rather than a menstrual cycle really progress? I don’t think so, at least not in my mind. When we create a milieu where it is OK to chalk women’s “hysteria” and behavior to mental illness, we also, in turn, help create a medical climate that responds to that with diagnoses, medications, chemicals and institutions. I think that’s really dangerous. I don’t want to hear about women’s temperaments being about bleeding, and I also don’t want to hear about them being about bipolar, or schizophrenia, or psychosis, or whatever else. It’s all stigmatic and divisive. Are there genuine mental illnesses? Yes. Should we quickly rush to categorize women with them when they act outside the norm? No. It’s hurtful to the destigmatization to those with mental illness and to women.

    We’d never say: It’s her breast cancer! or “Must be her extensions are too tight!” Why? Because those things are about the sexualization of women, about their perceived actual worth in this culture. Breast cancer and anything that jeopardizes a woman’s appearance could devalue her immensely, and that is no laughing matter. But a woman’s mood? Well, that is always up for controlling, mocking and denigrating. Because the more crazy we make a woman feel, the more crazy she becomes. And I can’t think of a better way to disempower and disenfranchise an entire segment of society.

  4. limor477 said,

    February 22, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    with several speculations that she has bipolar disorder. We don’t even KNOW her diagnosis, IF she even has one. The PRESS has chosen to pathologize her, and label her with Bipolar Disorder.

    This totally pisses me off. Every single “news” network has had an actual mental health “expert” (degreed analyst/psychologist/psychiatrist) on to talk about Spears’ mental health. How dare they even speculate. It’s incredibly unethical and unprofessional.

  5. February 22, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    My standard response to any comment about a stranger’s health without a confirmed diagnosis: “It could be anything from mental illness to incorrect medications or even an undiagnosed blood sugar issue. The fact is that the article doesn’t give enough information to make a diagnosis, even if you do happen to have a medical degree or PhD in psychology.”

    When people try to blame things on a person’s known medical/psychological issues, I again remind them that they are not doctors/psychologists and thus are not in a position to make a diagnosis.

    Nothing angers me quite the way armchair doctoring does. I don’t mind making myself unpopular by calling people on it.

  6. Shauna said,

    February 23, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Spot on. Some of my coworkers (psychiatrists) will discuss what disorder they think Britney has, for fun. It bothers the shit out of me. Partly because of this sort of atmosphere, I have not mentioned that I’ve struggled with depression myself, even if you’d expect a bunch of psychiatrists and psychologists to be understanding.

    The truth is it can be very hard to diagnose anyone with anything – we have objective standards but they’re interpreted subjectively and can be fairly arbitrary. A lot of people who do get diagnosed as bipolar, depressed, etc are not very different than others who don’t get diagnosed that way. So to see the press or anyone else diagnosing from a distance as though it’s an easy and obvious thing to do…

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