Up until now, I’ve been among the 63 percent of people who have not been avidly following the 24/7 news cycle that is Charlie Sheen. (Yes, Rasmussen Reports has conducted a poll.) I’ve been aware of his downward spiral — it’s hard to miss the headlines — but I didn’t tune in to his well-publicized interviews or deliberately seek out additional information. That is, until today, when the ladies of ABC’s The View showed clips of Sheen’s latest “Sheen’s Korner” video, available for all of us to gawk at on UStream.
What I want to know now is, why doesn’t somebody step up and step in to get him the help he needs? I know I’m not the first to say this, but I’m going to join the Charlie Sheen Internet frenzy and say it anyway: Charlie Sheen displays symptoms of being deep in the midst of a bipolar manic episode, or as he calls himself, “bi-winning.” (Please note, I am not a doctor and cannot armchair-diagnose him. There are other possible reasons for his behavior.) Sheen says he doesn’t want or need help. This is probably because while in a manic episode, the brain shoots out all sorts of happy-inducing chemicals. For a while, it feels good. But only for a while.
We’re a society that takes pleasure in the downfall of others, especially our celebrities. We put people on pedestals so we can tear them down again. News and entertainment media fuel the fire with constant coverage as a person in crisis becomes a punch line. It often seems that as long as the ratings, the views, and the advertising dollars keep coming, it doesn’t matter to the media industry who or what they exploit. And in the meantime, people learn that it’s OK to laugh at and demean those who live with bipolar disorder. How often have you heard something like “Oh he’s crazy. He must have bipolar” or “Ugh! Don’t be so bipolar”? People use the term without even knowing exactly what it means.
The truth about bipolar disorder is that it is a brain disorder affecting about 5.7 million adults in the United States. That’s about the same number of people who live in the whole states of Maryland or Wisconsin. It is a chronic physical disorder, much in the same way that diabetes is a chronic physical disorder which requires regular medical treatment to stay healthy. The vast majority of those people who have bipolar care about their health and are responsible about taking the necessary medications to help prevent mood-swing episodes. With stability, support and the proper medical care, people with bipolar live extremely normal, productive lives. They are not crazy, psycho, or insane. In fact, you may very well be acquainted with someone who has bipolar disorder without your even knowing it.
From an intellectual standpoint, I think it would be interesting to study media portrayals of celebrities in apparent mental health crisis and the effect on public perceptions of mental health issues. Remember Britney Spears’ low points a few years ago? Sheen’s not the first to have the state of his mental health questioned, but he’s perhaps unique in that he’s an active participant in the media frenzy surrounding him. From a personal standpoint, I tend to think this fascination with celebrity meltdowns not only does a disservice to the individual in question, but to people everywhere who responsibly cope with mental illness on a daily basis.
So let’s stop gawking at or trying to profit off people who are in a medical crisis and instead start painting an accurate picture of what it means to have bipolar disorder in the United States.
To read more about bipolar disorder, you can start with the National Institute of Mental Health‘s articles on the topic.