Archives for category: Bipolar Disease

While walking to work on Monday, I heard an interview with the rapper Professor Green on the morning news. The singer’s father committed suicide six years ago, an event that he is still trying to come to terms with. Professor Green hosts a BBC Radio 1 documentary programme on suicide survivors, which commenced this week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03q0xdx).

In the BBC news interview, Professor Green spoke of the impact his father’s suicide has had on him, and the range of emotions he has experienced in its aftermath. Initially angry with his father, he now realises the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and concludes that:

‘I don’t want to get too wrapped up in trying to understand why Dad did what he did. To hold on to that would be detrimental to me.’

Suicide is indeed complex – and individual – on every level, and its aftermath can be devastating for those affected. I have known people who have committed suicide, work colleagues who I was friendly with although not close to, and I found each event deeply distressing. I have no moral contentions with suicide. As with most decisions humans have the right to make, suicide is for me is an exclusively personal decision, and one that is the prerogative of the sufferer. Although the aftermath of the event will inevitably ripple and devastate far, this consequence is rarely something that those contemplating suicide can actually register within their own overwhelming distress.

A few months ago I was in the front carriage of a tube that came to a sudden stop just outside a station. Someone had jumped in front of the train. Shortly afterwards, we were ushered off the train through the driver’s carriage, acutely aware that a body lay just beneath us. I have no idea who that person was or why he/she decided to commit suicide. Nonetheless, I walked away from that train station distressed and profoundly sad, and also burdened by the disturbing realisation that we must have known about the death of someone unknown to us before relatives had been informed.

I have been reading Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and this week came across Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband Leonard written on the day she committed suicide.

Woolf’s final act appears to have been a very deliberate and thought-through one. She had already attempted suicide just a few days before she succeeded. The letter that she left for her husband feels considered, almost rational in its conclusion that death was the only conceivable option:

‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel certain that we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’

‘So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’

The letter also attempts to unburden Leonard of any consequent guilt:

‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.’

‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Not surprisingly, guilt is something that is often expressed by those close to suicide victims. The poet Peter Porter refers to it in his collection The Cost of Seriousness, whose ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife, Jannice’, who killed herself in 1974:

‘Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private’ (from An Exequy)

Words from those who are about to commit suicide, and those who suffer in its aftermath, speak to the complexity of the trauma and distress that surrounds the issue. Its very ‘unknowingness’ as well our inevitable resorting to ‘what if’ questions point to our need to understand, and of course to prevent, where possible, the act.

Perhaps Professor Green’s documentary on the subject will shed some light…

CQ

I went to see this film primarily as I was interested in how it portrayed mental illness. The experience of mental illness has often been skimpily and superficially dealt with in most fiction films, and so I was hoping for something deeper and more meaningful from this current release.

I was indeed entertained by the romantic, redemptive, uplifting storyline, where loves cures all (even crazy, which is not unusual in cinematic depictions of mental illness, for example Spellbound and Prince of Tides).

Undoubtedly, we need feel-good stuff in our lives.

But, and this is a significant ‘but’, I was not at all sure about the film’s depiction of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease.

Bipolar disease, or manic depression, can be devastating for the sufferer, albeit the severity of the condition varies from one individual to the next. What was reassuring in Silver Linings Playbook was to see those suffering from the condition leading a ‘normal’ life, which is certainly possible for many sufferers.

In the film, the sufferer Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, appears to be mainly affected by problems with anger management. We learn that his 8-month stay in a psychiatric hospital resulted from beating up his wife’s lover. Presumably this event alone did not lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disease, but we are kept in the dark as to what else defined his condition.

When he leaves hospital to live with his parents, we do see some (vaguely) manic episodes. Pat decides, for example, in an attempt to win back his wife, to read all the books on her teaching syllabus. Incensed by Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, he wakes his parents up at 4am to espouse on all that is wrong with the book, and eventually hurls the offending tome through a closed window. Anger, inappropriate behaviour, yes, but mental illness, bipolar disease? I am not so sure that this is necessarily so…

I was also perturbed by the comedy. In parts, the film is funny, and cleverly so. But I struggled with the humour in places, particularly where it felt like the audience was laughing at symptoms of bipolar disease, the acting out and inappropriate behaviour that mental illness can entail, and which also alienates and isolates sufferers in real life.

A further issue that bothered me was compliance with medication. Pat didn’t like how the pills made him feel, which is a very reasonable and common management problem. However, there is so much evidence that bipolar disease can be contained, even controlled, with appropriate treatment, and this was such a golden (and missed) opportunity to stress the importance of compliance.

I suspect that Pat did eventually take his medication on a regular basis, but in the end the film leaves one with the powerful sense that love, not medication and compliance, conquered mental illness.

So, overall, a missed opportunity I felt, as the portrayal of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease, is rarely the subject of mainstream cinema (and, interestingly, most of what we have to date originates from the US), and also the fact that the director David O Russell has such a way of winning over his audience, so much more could have been achieved. Most fiction films that deal with the topic of mental illness portray sufferers as victims in a melodrama (for example Splendour in the Grass (1961)). Documentaries and autobiographical works, for example The Devil and Daniel Johnston, are different, and often much more harrowing, and need to be explored as a separate entity.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy, which is also billed as having mental illness within its core focus. Observing Pat’s journey and recovery through the film may serve in some way to de-stigmatise mental illness, but I suspect that many of those in the auditorium with me a couple of nights ago will remember it as a sweet and endearing romantic story, rather than as a melodrama that dealt with the real, and less immediately solvable, issues that underlie the experience of living with mental illness.

CQ