Bipolar on TV: Does It Help or Harm?

Last Updated: 13 Apr 2020

On the one hand, characters with bipolar can demonstrate that treatment leads to stability. On the other, manic extremes make for better drama.

Anne Hathaway, portraying Lexi on episode 3 of Modern Love, An Amazon Prime Video streaming series that debuted in October 2019. Represents how people living with bipolar are represented or misrepresented in popular media.

“Surely there is someone out there who will take me for who I am: the good, the bad, the full story of love.”

That’s award-winning actor Anne Hathaway as Lexi, prognosticating optimistically about her romantic future as a woman with bipolar disorder. Lexi’s adventures take up the third episode of Modern Love, an Amazon Prime Video streaming series that debuted in October 2019.

At the splashy New York City premiere that Amazon hosted to launch the series, Hathaway did a bit of optimistic prognosticating herself—namely, that her Modern Love segment would help make it easier for people to put bipolar on the table.

“I think those conversations are starting to happen,” she told Variety, adding that people weren’t putting off those talks because of shame, “but because we don’t know how to start.”

Hathaway brought up another important point about seeing characters with bipolar on TV: Making the condition, and those who live with it, visible in the mainstream.

“This episode is going to mean so much because it offers some form of representation,” she said.

For viewers in 2020, the question isn’t so much whether people with bipolar are represented on TV shows, but rather what form that representation takes. Is it more like reckless Ian Gallagher on Showtime’s Shameless? Or more like Kat, the struggling figure skater at the heart of the Netflix original series Spinning Out?

Ian (played by Cameron Monaghan) embraces denial and mostly avoids treatment. Over the show’s 10 seasons, he’s been prone to poor judgment and rash acts—including trying to steal an Army helicopter. He’s gone through stints of sexual promiscuity and fallen into religious fanaticism. (Truth to tell, though, he’s far from the only troubled member of the dysfunctional Gallagher clan.)

Over on Spinning Out, which debuted this past January, Kat (Kaya Scodelario) couldn’t be more different. Sure, she’s got her romantic difficulties, her mother-daughter drama, her angst over where to take her skating career. But managing her bipolar slots quietly alongside all the other challenges in her life.

Lest we miss out on negative stereotypes, however, Kat’s mother also has bipolar. She’s shown behaving unpredictably and aggressively when she gets lackadaisical with her meds.

So, another question: Do these representations help or harm?

For Anita of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, portrayals of bipolar on TV do more to mislead than to educate because there’s no way they can be well-rounded and realistic. For one thing, there’s a lot about living with bipolar that just doesn’t make for good drama—or comedy.

“There is absolutely nothing glamorous, hilarious, or entertaining about actually having bipolar illness,” says Anita, 49, who received her bipolar II diagnosis at age 15. “The audience would not be interested in a character who just lies in bed [onscreen] and cries for 30 minutes straight.”

For another, the time limits on television programming make it impossible to accurately show the long, arduous arc of maintaining wellness.

“People are conditioned to believe that all of life’s problems can be resolved in less than an hour because television and movies have taught us that,” Anita says.

“Having people around us who are ‘enter-trained’ to believe that their favorite beloved character got through her panic attack in the last episode with flying colors does not help the rest of us at all,” she says. “Real life does not work that way.”


Within the constraints of the genre—and the selective editing that necessarily goes into shaping a script—the people who produce and write TV shows nowadays try not to let gross inaccuracies filter through. Actors do their research, too, reading up on bipolar and consulting with people who actually walk the walk.

Each of Modern Love’s eight episodes is based on a first-person essay from the weekly New York Times column of the same name. Hathaway’s episode was inspired by a piece titled “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” by Hollywood entertainment lawyer-turned-author Terri Cheney.

Translated to the small screen, we have Hathaway as an attractive, successful Manhattan attorney hoping to move beyond dating into a meaningful relationship. That’s not so easy while trying to hide her bipolar moods.

Instead of dishing up a happily-ever-after romantic finale, the episode ends on a hopeful, truthful note. Hathaway’s character decides to be upfront about all aspects of herself, adding her diagnosis to her online profile on a dating website.

Of course, the hope and the truth originally belonged to Cheney. Before her essay was published on January 13, 2008, Cheney kept her bipolar I on the down-low. Publishing in the NYT column was her loud-and-proud moment.

“At that time, there wasn’t a vocabulary for the way it really feels to have bipolar disorder,” recalls Cheney, who went on to publish the memoirs Manic and The Dark Side of Innocence. “Writing helped me feel like I control the experience, that I own it and it doesn’t control me anymore.”

For the TV adaptation, Amazon’s production team sought Cheney’s input. She also had discussions with Hathaway, who pored over Manic to get a better feel for her role.

Is the episode perfect? Cheney wouldn’t change a thing about it—and especially adores the musical elements, a trademark of director John Carney—but concedes that “you can’t be all things to all people. A 30-minute episode has to be condensed for dramatic purposes. For example, my own mood switches are not that instantaneous.”


Daytime Dramas’ Truth about Bipolar Treatment

In 2006, half a decade after prime-time TV took the plunge, mob boss Sonny Corinthos was diagnosed with bipolar I on ABC’s iconic soap opera General Hospital. Maurice Benard, whose own bipolar was diagnosed at age 22, has played Sonny since 1993—netting two Emmys over the years.

Even as his character brought bipolar to the notice of the show’s viewers, Benard spoke candidly about real-life experiences in interviews and other public settings.

In his new memoir Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital, Benard writes more in-depth about the challenges of controlling his mood symptoms while filming on a daily basis and about the support he received from colleagues.

Benard, 57, has told bp Magazine that he “gave a ton of input” on how a mood episode and managing bipolar might play out. For example, he insisted Sonny be shown taking his meds.

On occasion, Benard objected to elements in certain scripts. As an industry insider, however, he accepts that the nature of a melodrama sometimes works against accuracy.

The Young and the Restless, aka Y&R, gave long-running character Sharon Newman a bipolar diagnosis in 2012. Josh Griffith, co-executive producer and head writer of the CBS soap, put considerable thought into responsibly portraying a character with bipolar.

“I looked at some of the emotional journeys the character had taken over the years, picked up what seemed to be a pattern of up-and-down behavior that might fit with bipolar disorder, and saw a chance to, (a) tell a compelling and dramatic story, and (b) explore an important and topical issue that affects millions of people,” he says. “We wanted to be medically accurate with both behavior and treatment, and as dramatic as possible,” he adds.



As far as greater representation in mainstream programs, Cheney doesn’t think television in general has normalized bipolar because stereotypes still prevail most of the time. Notably, “plotlines when a character goes off their medications and becomes manic.… I felt it inferred blame on people for their condition,” she explains, apologizing if she sounds “cranky” about it all.

Nevertheless, Cheney remembers being “so excited that bipolar disorder was being acknowledged at all” when the NBC hospital drama ER introduced the character of Maggie Wyczenski 20 years ago.

Sally Field won an Emmy for her portrayal of Maggie, who first appeared in the November 16, 2000, episode called The Visit. She dropped in on her daughter, Abby Lockhart, one of the show’s main characters. Maggie returned in another 11 episodes over the following seasons, usually demonstrating some extreme or disruptive behavior feeding into a dramatic conflict.

“Now I sort of cringe to see how over-the-top her character was when she was manic—wearing a skimpy red dress and flirting shamelessly with all the young interns,” Cheney says. “It’s not exactly inaccurate, just less nuanced than we are today.”

Maggie seemed to blow open a door for the industry. In 2001, the HBO comedic drama Six Feet Under went even further, including a character with bipolar as a regular part of the ensemble cast. While not one of the central figures, Billy Chenowith (Jeremy Sisto) familiarized viewers with the fact that bipolar is a treatable condition.

Over the show’s five seasons, however, Billy sometimes went off his meds with stereotypically destructive results. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Billy can be sullen, seductive, filled with rage or decimated by self-loathing, depending on whether he’s taken his medication.”

Throughout the decade, that remained the motif on a variety of programs: a minor, recurring or ensemble character exhibiting manic behavior if not in treatment—but also demonstrating that medication can pave the way to stability.

Then came Homeland.

The Showtime spy thriller, premiered in October 2011, puts its character with bipolar front and center. That would be CIA officer Carrie Mathison, played by high-profile actor Claire Danes. Carrie is a top-ranking counterterrorism agent, operating in a high-pressure environment. Her bipolar is an integral aspect of her characterization and a seamless element in the plot.

No one would put Carrie on a pedestal for carefully managed wellness, but she introduced viewers to a more complex view of living with bipolar. She is shown choosing to go off her meds in order to exploit the sharper thinking of hypermania. She demonstrates obsessive behavior during manic episodes. Her depressive episodes get written into the script.

Some critics slammed Homeland for sensationalizing the disorder. Hannah Jane Parkinson, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, was one viewer who argued back. Parkinson, who has bipolar, found Danes’ portrayal “accurate and refreshing.”

The 2014 opinion piece continued: “Most of the time, the show gets it right… In a world in which mental health stigma is still devastating, it’s fantastic that films and TV programs are upping their game when it comes to representation.”


Dane captured two Emmys for her work on Homeland. As with Hathaway on Modern Love, she turned to Cheney’s memoir Manic as part of her research on how to play the character.

“Claire is a terrific actor, and yes, there were episodes of [Carrie] going off her meds, but she paid more attention than usual to her character’s bipolar disorder,” says Cheney. “She did a very good job at representing depression.”

Showtime initially consulted Julie Fast, an author, speaker, and personal coach specializing in mood disorders. Homeland’s showrunners enlisted Fast’s help before filming the pilot and used her book Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder to help develop Danes’ character.

“Claire was wonderful, lovely, down-to-earth and very welcoming, and tried really hard to get bipolar right,” says Fast, a longtime bp Magazine columnist. “She treated me beautifully as an equal and asked very intelligent questions, especially about mania.”

Unfortunately, Fast says, her own illness didn’t sync well with the stressful demands of that job.

“I love the work, but have to find a balance between the TV world and my own stability. This creates a lot of loss—and [that’s] not something the TV shows talk about very often,” she muses.

One thing Homeland did get right, Fast says, was illustrating “the superpowers we feel during a euphoric manic episode.”

She adds, “Going off meds to intentionally get manic is a very realistic portrayal of how we want the meds to help with depression, but often we miss the high energy of being manic. Mania makes us feel invincible. And as always happens, Claire’s character made terrible decisions when she went off her meds.”

Fast praises Homeland for showing the fallout of Carrie’s decisions when they didn’t end well or safely.

Alas, we won’t see more of Carrie after Homeland’s eighth and final season wraps this spring. Ditto for Andre Lyon, eldest son of Lucious and Cookie Lyon on Fox’s Empire. That series about scheming music executives in New York City, which first aired in 2015, won’t be returning for a seventh season.

Andre moved depictions of bipolar a huge step forward. He has a successful management career, nimbly navigating the treacherous waters of the family dynasty. He has a business degree from the prestigious Wharton School. He’s in a stable marriage with his college sweetheart. (He’s also a black man, bringing a whole new dimension to representation.)

Mental health activist Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW, singles out Andre as a more realistic example of someone with the disorder than is usually seen. He’s active and effective, follows his treatment plan, and is able to successfully manage stress.

“He sees his doctor to tweak his meds on occasions and… doesn’t fall apart when his baby dies,” White, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told VH1.


“On screen, it’s really important to continue to reinforce what bipolar disorder is and what it is not,” says Marie Gallo Dyak, president and CEO of the Entertainment Industries Council.

“Stories tell us that people can be accurately diagnosed, can be safely treated, be productive, and sustain a lifestyle they are comfortable with,” she says. “These are really important stories that need to be told.”

The council is a Hollywood watchdog group established in 1983 to promote accurate depictions of behavioral health and social issues in films, TV shows, and other media. It provides science-based resources to scriptwriters and their colleagues.

Dyak has definitely seen big strides forward. She says bipolar “is more mainstream than when we first started talking about it—especially in a clinical way.… Now, when someone says something about bipolar disorder, it’s not uncomfortable.”

Some advancements may be more subtle, she notes. For example, “instead of someone asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ [in a scene], a character can ask, ‘What’s happened to you?’”

Julie Fast keeps her finger on the pulse of how bipolar is shown in various media and measures progress in increments. In her opinion, greater representation on the small screen has increased awareness of mental health challenges.

Compared to a decade ago, she sees more open and uplifting dialogue in both post-show chatter on social media and in general. Despite the limited lens on living with the illness, every character we see on TV does a little bit to chip away at silence and stigma.

“Is it positive?” Fast asks rhetorically. “Absolutely.”


Bipolar Stereotypes Persist

In fall 2017, Declan O’Hern, then a communications student at Elon University in North Carolina, authored a research paper that analyzed portrayals of bipolar disorder in television dramas over the preceding decade.

O’Hern noted that at least 16 TV shows since the early 2000s incorporated bipolar characters either as a protagonist or recurring character. She tracked the accuracy of depictions in ER, Friday Night Lights, Shameless, Homeland, Empire, and the Canadian franchise Degrassi.

Factors included how treatment and recovery were shown, the character’s social and professional functioning, and incidents of dangerous or violent behavior blamed on the illness.

O’Hern cited earlier entertainment tropes that linked “the actions of murderers, molesters [and] egomaniacs” to mental disorders. That was in the dark ages before mental health awareness campaigns and school curricula on mental wellness. However, more recent TV scripts still rely on exaggerated behaviors—as might be expected from writers looking to provide a dramatic hook.

“All shows collectively hit on almost every stereotype at least once and, in general, television depicted violent and criminal behavior far too often,” O’Hern concluded.

Furthermore, the shows frequently failed to put such behaviors in context to make the actions more understandable.

On the plus side, O’Hern added, viewers were given more realistic exposure to the existence of professional incompetence, unwillingness to accept treatment, and the fact that recovery doesn’t happen instantaneously.

The final verdict: “Despite recent progress, contemporary bipolar protagonists still have progress to make before depictions can be classified as wholly realistic.”


Printed as “BP on TV,” Spring 2020

About the author
Stephanie Stephens, M.A is an 18-year journalist and content producer, specializing in health and healthcare, investigations, celebrities, pets, lifestyle, and business. She writes for magazines and online publications, networks, hospitals and health systems, corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, as well as advertising and marketing agencies. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, Everyday Health, WebMD, in content for the American Academy of Neurology, National MS Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and more. She has written for, Family Circle, Cooking Light, Parade, USA Today and others. She’s currently producing a television series, and completed her master’s in journalism at New York University. Stephanie has lived in 16 cities, is a resident of New Zealand by application, and is committed to improving animal welfare. Follow Stephanie at, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
  1. I like how you said” behaviors in films arent put in context so the behaviors could have been better understood ” That made me flash back to one of my many manic benders….

    i received a text message one day saying “I saw you at Kroger today, i didnt kno you had a cat”. I had gone to Kroger and purchased cat litter that day so whomever sent the text must have really seen me. I asked who it was and they never responded. Therefore i did my damnest to figure out who this person was, thinking they were stalking me and when they caught me i was certain they were going to kill me. Then, after my hometown/favorite basketball ball team, Louisville, lost a big game, i got another text saying to stop crying to my TV … well, that’s exactly what i happened to be doing at that moment… so again i think “he’s stalking me to kill me.” So my manic mind exaggerated everyting to the extreme. I was terrified of whoever this was. So, who wouldn’t board up their windows to avoid being shot & push the couch in the bathroom cuz thats the only place i could sleep and not get hit.

    No woman likes receiving texts like that, however they probably hardly thought of them again and probably wouldn’t have engaged back with threats and insults either. They probably would have chalked it up to be some jerk, a coward, or an idiot, and left it at that. Not gone to the extreme like thinking a murderer is stalking you. They probably wouldn’t have canvassed the neighborhood door to door, interrogating all the neighbors if they had seen any suspicious persons or cars lurking by my house. I called the cops when id come home and an unrecognizable car was parked on my busy street, and told them to hurry cuz someone is waiting there to kill me.

    I have sooooo many stories, theres just a tiny fraction of one delusion i had and the bizarre behaviors i exhibited in response to my erroneous belief.

  2. I must say, every depiction of bipolar are very different on TV. I belong to a bipolar group online which includes so many different bipolar diagnosis. Our experience and symptoms are very unique to each individual. Prescribed medication symptoms and experience is different. I find that the bipolar diagnoses are the popular label recently. The stigma is very strong. It’s not a one size fits all bipolar. There needs to be a broader study and research before being diagnosed with bipolar. There may be a similarity in a symptom with a certain medication but not often. One thing for sure, if you miss one or two dosage of your medication does not send you into a tailspin. Please advocate for more research on diagnosis, treatment and medication. Thank you for your time, and most important remember each individuals experience is very unique.

  3. Has television improved perceptions of any group, or has it shaped it? I lean toward shaped, so it will always exaggerate, especially something as personal and individually shaped already as bipolar. It will most certainly box in folks further, and most are trying to break free of life’s boxes, or hurdles, or sitcoms. Open season, and save the tired platitudes. TV advances what makes TV money. The industry has never sought to shed light or whatever caring buzzword of the day. If it can be exploited for profit, it will.

  4. One of the more cringeworthy representations that I’ve seen on television was by Dr. Phil himself, who had one show with a raging, cruel mother who did nothing but scream at her child. There was no nuance in the presentation – it was sensational, inaccurate and deeply disappointing coming from someone who appears to pride himself on bringing the discussion of mental health to the masses.

  5. Bipolar just doesn’t work like it was portrayed in this article. I was diagnosed over 30 year’s ago. I have relapses. I’m not a t.v. show or a movie. Everybody who has bipolar has different symptoms. Skipping one pill does not make you a raging lunitic able to be a super hero.

    1. I was first diagnosed with Major depressive disorder and when I was put on meds, I had my Manic episode which diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder. The ups and downs of prescribing proper medication is like being on a rollercoaster. When you go to the hospital for anything other than bipolar and you disclose u have bipolar they keep you there to assess your stability just to milk your insurance. Yes this sadly happens. Then it’s still a stigma. You are looked at differently if you have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

    2. WELL SAID AND MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY! I was diagnosed with bipolar about 20 years ago and NEVER did missing a dose give me the high of mania! It gave me horrendous “brain zaps” excruciating fatigue and makes me feel beyond disoriented! I would NEVER purposely miss a dose and it certainly doesn’t make me feel better! I agree that everyone is unique in their own way, but this is how it makes me feel personally!

Load More Comments

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.