By: Sasha Kildare
Can we turn around the negative media portrayal of bipolar disorder?
At times I am discouraged because of the way television dramas and some bestselling memoirs portray bipolar disorder. They tend to show only its negative, extreme aspects. While researching memoirs regarding bipolar disorder, I came across two books that are destined to help destigmatize brain disorders, such as bipolar disorder, and help balance media coverage.
“Men aren’t always as they appear, but they are what they hide,” is just one of the stunning sentences within All The Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness. Its author, Sheila Hamilton, pulls off a compelling memoir that includes valuable insight and research as to effective treatments for brain disorders aka mental illness.
Hamilton’s estranged husband died by suicide six weeks after finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As she tells her family story, Hamilton demonstrates how challenging it is in the U.S. to recognize, acknowledge, and treat brain disorders.
All The Things We Never Knew offers a more well-rounded portrayal of bipolar disorder. The memoir advocates for a collaborative problem-solving approach to treatment and details evidence-based practices and several newer promising therapies such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and neurosequential model of therapeutics (NMT).
In my opinion, stigma, another word for discrimination, is still the greatest barrier to successfully managing bipolar disorder. The brain is our most complex organ, and so many factors affect its function, yet integrative treatment for brain disorders, aka mental illness, are still not the norm. During my research, I also came across The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves by neuroscientist Erik R. Kandel, which demystifies neuroscience and more. The research and discussion presented in Kandel’s book provides valuable insight that could help us move toward more integrative, effective treatments of brain disorders.
“Mood disorders are brain diseases that affect the integrity of the self — that collection of vital emotions, memories, beliefs, and behaviors that shapes each of us as a unique human being,” says Kandel in Chapter 3 “Emotions and the Integrity of the Self.”
Segregating the treatment of brain disorders from other medical disorders contributes to the stigma. For example, one major medical provider has as its introductory recorded message to its phone tree, “If you think you are having a medical or psychiatric emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.” The wording implies that psychiatric emergencies are not medical emergencies, but unto their own.
I have been doing a lot of research for a manuscript concerning the relationship between brain disorders and addiction. (Research is the fun part. Writing not so much.) I also learned that in Canada mental health and addiction are now assessed and treated together.
Stigma plays out as denial too. Hamilton’s mother-in-law at the time doesn’t acknowledge that there is anything wrong with her son. This denial could not have helped her son accept his mental illness.
Acceptance is the necessary first step in tackling any illness. Mental illness can make you vulnerable in so many ways. If it robs you of the ability to earn a living, even temporarily, then it makes you dependent on family and friends. If those family and friends don’t believe in mental illness, believe that it’s willful misbehavior, or minimize it, you are likely to follow their line of thinking, stigmatize yourself, feel shame, and not seek out effective treatment. The nature of mental illness doesn’t put you into detective mode, but you need to adopt an anything-it takes-to-stay-healthy mentality and keep digging until you find the treatments, lifestyle tweaks, employment situation, and community you need to make that happen. That’s near impossible if you are not well at the time, unless you have a support network that relentlessly pushes you in the right direction.