Being Bipolar: A Dangerous View on the Illness

You wouldn't tell someone with diabetes not to take their medication, and you shouldn't do that to someone with bipolar either. It is a serious illness that needs to be treated seriously.

Last night, Channel 4 aired a brilliant and brave programme documenting three people's struggles with bipolar disorder as they were interviewed by esteemed psychotherapist Philippa Perry. I'm a big fan of Philippa Perry, having seen her talk and read her book How to stay sane, and the programme was brilliant in many ways, however it also posed some difficult questions that I think can be quite dangerous to public opinion of the illness: whether it is a biological illness, or whether it is caused by personal trauma.

As a psychotherapist, Philippa made her point of view clear from the outset: that bipolar disorder is as a result of incidents of trauma in a person's life, that it is an emotional illness, that it is a reaction to feelings that have not been resolved. Throughout the programme, she was told this was not so by several people, from the bipolar sufferers who stated that they had not encountered any trauma in their lives, to the psychiatrists who explained that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. She was even told straight out by a scientist that there is no evidence of environmental factors provoking the illness, but rather that the evidence points at genetic causes. Despite this, Philippa's conclusion at the end of the programme was still that rather than label people with the illness bipolar, we should see them as 'individuals with unique issues'.

This marks a big issue for me. Firstly, the label of bipolar in my experience has been vastly useful in that it gave me an understanding of what I was going through, connected me with others who experience the same thing, and started my journey of self-exploration to find a solution to the problem, rather than end the journey of self-exploration as Philippa claims the diagnosis to be.

But more importantly, the diagnosis and labelling of bipolar signals something to others who do not suffer from the illness. From colleagues to friends to strangers, it marks that it is an illness that should be considered seriously, and treated as such, just as you would diabetes for example. It is an imbalance that can be balanced given the right treatment. You wouldn't tell someone with diabetes not to take their medication, and you shouldn't do that to someone with bipolar either. It is a serious illness that needs to be treated seriously. I certainly agree with sufferer Sian when she stated on the programme that without her medication, she would not be alive today.

This does not mean to say that therapy is not an important part of dealing with the illness - I absolutely believe it is. But Perry is too simplistic in her assertion that it is the only and best way to deal with it, and that the medication simply blocks the negative feelings and consequently avoids solving the problem. I have found that it is a combination of medication and therapy that leads to the ideal scenario - the therapy helps deal with the triggers and the problems that come with having a mental illness, while the medication helps dilute the intensity of the mood swings. One could not work without the other. Believe me, I've tried. I've had therapy and no medication, I've had medication and no therapy, and both left me in extremely difficult situations. But if I had to choose one over the other, I would always choose the medication, because if I miss even a single dose, my terrible mood swings come barking back instantly in the most unmanageable way, for the world to see and comment on, effecting every aspect of my life.

Television has a responsibility when talking about subjects like this, not to indulge in a personal point of view as Perry does, but to show a fair and balanced argument for those who have the illness, and to highlight the struggle and resilience of those who suffer to the public to combat stigma. This programme did a great job of showing the reality of what the illness entails and how strong those who suffer from it are to survive, but it failed to present a balanced and helpful view on how to deal with it, and in doing so, I fear, leaves us in a worse position than before it was aired.