Tuesday 22 June 2010

Bipolar Popular?

Intriguing news this week that Bipolar Disorder (which has largely replaced the term "Manic Depression") may be a "desirable diagnosis": see the story here.

Apparently many people are diagnosing themselves as bipolar because there is much more information in the public domain about the illness; it is also seen as more “acceptable” because clever and creative people like Stephen Fry have spoken about their experience of the illness. This must generally be a good thing but there are also risks. Obviously if somebody accurately diagnoses their own bipolar illness (in other words it is confirmed subsequently by a clinician) then it is all to the good that they can get help soon – indeed many people with serious mental illness never seek help through lack of insight so if more people are checking out their condition that’s great.

The concern must be that if, as the article implies, some people resort to the diagnosis as an explanation of an erratic life-style or mood swings (which trouble many people without a serious mental illness) they may not address problems systematically in order to sort out their lives; there is also a risk of doubt being cast by the wider public on the validity of bipolar disorder as a serious problem requiring treatment and care if the diagnosis is used loosely by individuals who believe it will in a curious way make them more exotic and excuse some forms of behaviour – I have observed this phenomenon outside the context of my professional life.

To his credit Stephen Fry has not simplistically absolved himself of responsibility for problems arising from his mental illness. In a sense he was forced out into the open by his famous running away from Simon Gray's play "Cell Mates" in 1995 (yes, that long ago!) but while disclosing his health problems he nevertheless acknowledged his responsibility for the play's closure and the impact on all concerned with it. Bipolar disorder can cause great hardship for those who experience it and also serious problems for their families and colleagues: this reality makes the notion of a "desirable diagnosis" most inappropriate but let us cautiously celebrate the effect Fry and others have had in disclosing their illness. All experience suggests that the main route to tackling stigma lies in increasing contact between the wider public and people with a mental illness whether they are celebrities on the telly or neighbours in your community who feel able to share their experience.

Of course we also need people with experience of schizophrenia to speak to the public: there's no sign of that becoming a trendy diagnosis but there are brave pioneers, not least among Hafal's Members and staff, prepared to share their experience of schizophrenia as well as bipolar and other illnesses - let us hope that one day in an enlightened future we will be able to look back in some surprise at these days when a few courageous men and women first stepped forward to use their humanity to overwhelm public fear and misunderstanding of mental illness.

If you want more information please follow these links on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And if you think you might have an undiagnosed mental illness don't speculate - see your doctor!