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Channel 4’s is wrong about being bipolar

The synopsis of the recent Channel 4 documentary, Being Bipolar, explains that “psychotherapist Philippa Perry explores the dramatic rise in bipolar diagnoses, looking at the condition from the perspective of the people living with it”.

The latter claim concerning ‘perspective’ is inconsistent with the documentary itself. Philippa Perry looks at the condition from her own perspective.

To put it crudely, bipolarism is a mood disorder that can entail euphoric highs and suicidal lows, it can also consist of psychotic episodes in which the sufferer might entirely lose touch with reality, hearing voices and experiencing delusions.

The programme follows three people with bipolar diagnoses of the two main kinds. However, as someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder myself, I take issue with the psychotherapist’s ‘different’ approach to the issue.

Medication, or rather what she refers to (with a subtly altered semantic charge) as ‘drugs’ mostly, is presented as an inadequate course of treatment throughout. Medication is even articulated by a researcher interviewed as merely a way ‘for people to try and block out their feelings’ and as not appropriate long term use.

The medications specifically noted in the documentary were Diazepam and Prozac. Both are notoriously addictive, problematic substances. Most bipolar sufferers are actually treated with lithium in the long term, but there was no mention of this substance, suggesting an agenda to vilify ‘drugs’ as treatments. Additionally, psychotherapy is never critically considered as a form of treatment What is presented as a pivotal revelation for the presenter, that medication does not actually cure the condition is also deceptively false.

No doctor has ever claimed to be able to ‘cure’ my condition; medication is known to be a treatment only. People with bipolar are disposed to relapse, they are not constantly ill but they are not ‘cured’ in any sense of the word as we know it.

Therefore, Perry unnecessarily undermines the legitimacy of medication that has actually revolutionised the treatment of serious mental health conditions like bipolar, allowing people like myself to live with the condition. Assumptions that you would rather be on huge amounts of drugs than deal with, what people like Perry, suggest are just your emotional hang-ups that must, she insists, stem from trauma that you are simply more sensitive to than other people, despite (after much questioning) the reporting of none add to the stigmas that we already have to live with.

One person even apologised on not being able to cough up any enlightening traumatic material. The critical comment that both bipolar people ‘see their extreme impulses as beyond their control’, reflects another misconception that bipolar is a choice rather than a medical affliction.

A picture of bipolar as a self-induced condition exasperated by complacence is etched out which I see as a regression to a judgemental and dogmatic way of dealing with mental illness. An older relative of mine was treated for bipolar disorder as a student in the 70s and like myself, is still undergoing treatment for the condition.

He reflected that: “back in the day, all that behaviourist stuff” degraded “chemical therapy, even regarding it as an evasive sign of weakness”. He explained that the blunt application of psychotherapy was not only unhelpful but also actually led to problems with his self-image and even self-hatred.

Perry psychoanalyses one of the participants Paul, by suggesting his competitive personality might well mean his bipolar episode’s spring from his inability to lose- his need to be the best. A rather neat insight that seems to degrade the complexity of the condition and symptoms presented.

Meeting him outside of an episode, she deigns that even his version of ‘sane’ is different, using her own as the yardstick by which we can all be judged. The apparent infallibility of the almighty psychotherapist (complete with patronising glasses) is something I am personally extremely weary of. Concluding the documentary, Perry announces that Sian has committed to beginning psychotherapy treatment.

Benign in itself, until the shot ends with Sian overwhelmed with emotion saying ‘it’s the beginning of the end’ of her condition. The particularly obtuse ending is representative of a misplaced confidence that runs through the entire programme. Being Bipolar to me represents a hugely problematic revival of an arrogant, semi-Freudian past.

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