Kanye West has been in the media a lot lately. Every other day there is a story about the latest outrageous thing he has done or said. We all have a front row seat to watch his life imploding. It’s painful to watch. But the thing that has been the most frustrating for me about all of this is the emphasis in the coverage about Kanye’s bipolar disorder.
This has been an issue I have struggled with for decades watching the media’s portrayal of bipolar disorder, in news stories and in movies and television. It is almost without exception focused on people who are very sick. They are not managing their bipolar disorder effectively and the world witnesses a disorder that is out of control and thinks that it is representative of bipolar disorder broadly. It’s the Kanye Effect.
Physical vs. Mental Illness in Media
As I thought about this I struggled to think of any physical illness where the media consistently, persistently sensationalize the illness at its worst. In fact the opposite seems to be true. The media loves to tell the stories of people overcoming their physical illnesses or disorders and living fulfilling lives by effectively managing them. So why not with mental illness?
The effect of this obsession with focusing on the worst of bipolar disorder is that it perpetuates the stigma of the illness. Anyone who doesn’t have personal experience with bipolar believes that people with the disorder are crazy, irrational lunatics. It also prevents people from seeking treatment or sharing their diagnosis for fear of being viewed in that same light.
What we are seeing in Kanye West is a man with bipolar disorder who is clearly manic. His disorder is not being effectively managed and he and those closest to him are suffering because of it. But that does not mean that all people who have bipolar disorder are like that. It also does not mean that a lifetime of dramatic mood cycles is the end of the story.
Could you imagine the hopelessness a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes would bring if the only thing you ever saw were people with diabetes being rushed off in an ambulance because their blood sugar was dangerously low? Or someone who was in a diabetic coma? Or blind or with limbs missing?
If the news was only telling you horror stories of people suffering the worst effects of diabetes it would feel like a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes was a death sentence. Why try learning to manage it if your life is over anyway? You would feel hopeless and helpless, like a victim to your disorder.
Yes, all of those terrible things are potential risks if you have diabetes, especially if you are not managing it proactively. However, hundreds of thousands of people live active, healthy, fulfilling lives every day with diabetes. A person can learn to manage it effectively. The same is true for living with bipolar disorder. You can learn to effectively manage it and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
How do you counteract the negative portrayal of bipolar in the media?
Awareness vs. Normalizing
First, it’s important to recognize the difference between raising awareness for bipolar disorder and the symptoms of mania and depression versus normalizing these symptoms. Raising awareness of the symptoms of mania and depression can be useful if it is done with a view to help people recognize the disorder and seek diagnosis and treatment.
We should not seek to normalize the symptoms that indicate a mood imbalance, however, because the symptoms of a disorder are indications that there is something wrong or out of balance and treatment is needed.
We don’t seek to normalize the symptoms of diabetes–like normalizing diabetic comas. Even saying that sounds ridiculous. If someone passes out because their blood sugar is dangerously low, you recognize it for what it is, a symptom of a body in distress. You respond to that symptom by seeking immediate treatment.
The same needs to be true for the symptoms of a mood cycle–mania or depression. The symptoms of your manic or depressive episodes are indications that your mind is in distress and needs treatment.
When I see people on social media trying to normalize the symptoms of bipolar it is frustrating because it perpetuates the Kanye Effect. It further stigmatizes the disorder by showing people who are in mental distress who need treatment. It also can cause people to feel like there is no hope for living well with bipolar. If it appears that for the rest of your life you will struggle with dramatic mood cycles it will cause discouragement and make it hard to want to seek help.
Effective, Proactive Treatment
It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar if you learn how to treat it effectively. So how do you treat bipolar effectively?
Recognize the Symptoms
First, learn to recognize the symptoms of your manic or depressive episodes so that you can recognize when you are either entering or are in a mood cycle. When you are first diagnosed with bipolar disorder you will likely not recognize all of the symptoms of your mood cycles. The symptoms of a mental illness really are “all in your head”, and they can feel normal to you.
You can change that by beginning to track your mood. As you track your mood you will start to recognize the symptoms that are indicators that you are entering or in a manic or depressive episode. The more familiar you become with the symptoms you have the earlier you will recognize your mood shifting and be able to treat or proactively manage the mood imbalance.
Proactively Manage Mood Cycles
Second, learn to proactively manage your mood cycles. You can begin by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). This plan will help you:
- Identify the people you can ask for help when you’re struggling in a mood cycle.
- Learn the symptoms and triggers of your mood cycles.
- Develop a plan for self-care to aid in recovery.
- Plan for getting back to health and balance.
Treating the Mood Imbalance
Next, learn how to effectively treat your bipolar disorder. Bipolar is a complex disorder that requires an integrated approach to treat effectively. The first step is to treat the imbalance in the brain.
When I was first diagnosed I was told that I just needed to find the right combination of medications and I would be able to live a normal life. That turned out to be wrong. Like many people I did not respond well to medication. I continued to experience mood cycles–with terrible side-effects from the medications–and over the first decade after my diagnosis my disorder got progressively worse.
The treatment that finally gave my brain what it needed to start to heal was a micronutrient treatment my doctor and I discovered. This helped my brain begin to be more chemically balanced and gave the other tools I was learning a chance to work.
The next step was therapy. When you have bipolar–especially if you live with the mood cycles for a while–you develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns that can trigger mood cycles even if you are on the right medication or micronutrient treatment.
Many people with bipolar also have unhealed trauma and don’t understand healthy boundaries. Therapy is a tool that will help you uncover those unhealthy triggers and aid in helping you heal and learning to interact with the world in a healthy and balanced way.
It is also necessary to develop a self-care routine that keeps your body and mind healthy. This includes tools like mindfulness meditation, yoga, exercise and consistent, restorative sleep. The health of your body is interconnected with the health of your mind. In order to help your mind heal and stay balanced you need to care for both your mind and body.
Changing the Conversation
Spreading awareness about bipolar disorder can be beneficial if the goal is to cultivate compassion and hope for those with the disorder. Don’t contribute to the Kanye Effect by further stigmatizing those with bipolar by sensationalizing or normalizing the symptoms of the mood cycle.
For years I thought that the goal with bipolar was to learn to suffer well with it. I believed that dramatic mood cycles with all of the horrible life damaging symptoms would be my “normal” for the rest of my life. Over the past decade, however, I have discovered that isn’t true. You can learn to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar.
There is a growing community of people with bipolar disorder who are living well with it. Seek support from others who have learned to effectively manage their disorder. Let’s show the world what living well with bipolar disorder looks like together!
If you are a mom (or prospective mom) with bipolar disorder join our Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.