I didn’t have high hopes for ‘Being Bipolar’, the latest Channel 4 documentary. I worried that the footage would be upsetting. It is always difficult to see other people struggle with mental illness in such a similar way to yourself. What I was most concerned about was the way that the documentary might portray those with mental illness. The media often don’t portray mental illness in an accurate sensitive way. This documentary was no exception.
It started with the host of the show, a psychotherapist called Phillipa Perry, pointing out that the established belief is that bipolar disorder can be caused by a variety of factors including chemical imbalances, genetics and environment. However, for some reason she started out the programme with the assumption that bipolar is caused solely by life experiences. There is no evidence cited to back up this belief, but it is a belief she holds on to.
She interviewed three different people who have bipolar disorder. She displayed sympathy and kindness to those people but in approaching them with her dogmatic belief, she couldn’t help but undermine them.
She repeatedly asked them if there had been any trauma in their life, to which the answer seemed to be a resounding no. Phillipa Perry saw any negative experience as a complete explanation of why someone developed bipolar disorder. At one point she cited how one of those people interviewed, Paul, had been an only child and then a successful business man later in life. As if this somehow explained away everything.
There are of course certain experiences that everyone has that have been traumatic and these people interviewed will have had these kinds of experiences too. This doesn’t instantly mean that these experiences have caused bipolar disorder to develop. If they have they are likely to be part of a complex picture that includes environmental, genetic and chemical factors. Stressful experiences may trigger episodes, but it seems that some people have a propensity towards the illness to begin with.
Phillipa Perry talked very negatively about medication used to treat bipolar. She declared that people with bipolar disorder were using medications to numb emotions and that this was only a temporary fix. In one fell swoop, she made thousands of people feel ashamed that they rely on medication. Of course, medical professionals generally agree that medication is important in the treatment of bipolar disorder. People take medication because they are desperate to get help and the effectiveness of certain medications are backed by clinical studies. This generally held expert belief didn’t seem to matter to the presenter who pushed psychotherapy as the appropriate treatment. This is not to say that psychotherapy can’t used to treat bipolar. It’s just that this isn’t the only option out there; a range of treatment options should be considered for bipolar disorder.*
I fear that people will watch this documentary and then think that they know everything there is to know about bipolar. I fear that people who don’t know better will judge me for being on medication. I fear that because they have seen people interviewed with the illness, they will think that my experience is exactly the same.
I know that these kinds of programmes are important in raising awareness, but that is not much good if the awareness they are raising is misguided awareness. I hope that people will come away from the documentary with sympathy for those interviewed but remain sceptical about some of the presenter’s opinions.
*Of course, psychotherapy is barely available within the NHS, Medication is a lot cheaper to provide and so is often the go to for mental illness for this reason too.