How is Bipolar Disorder Depicted in Pop Culture?

When we see a celebrity acting erratically over a significant period of time, the media is usually quick to assume that they are suffering from Bipolar disorder. Although it is only speculation, the negative portrayal of the disorder seeps into our everyday thinking, perpetuating the stigma of mental health.

Bipolar Disorder Inaccurately Portrayed

Bipolar disorder is characterized by its extreme mood swings, where a person may experience polarizing episodes of intense high-energy mania to crippling levels of depression. Affecting over 1.5% of the Canadian population, it’s a widespread mental illness that is often unfairly and inaccurately portrayed in media.

Like most mental illnesses, the media tends to focus on the dramatic side of Bipolar disorder, ignoring management and treatment. This leaves those who suffer from the disease feeling lost or embarrassed by the misrepresentation. They see someone suffering from their illness on TV, but the way they are being portrayed is negative or inaccurate.


There have also been moments of sheer irresponsibility, like when the Sopranos showed Tony flushing his lithium pills (often used to treat Bipolar disorder) after the medication caused hallucinations. When a Bipolar viewer watches a character ‘overcome’ their medication or suffer extreme side effects for dramatic flair, it can cause confusion and shame. For viewers who don’t experience Bipolar disorder but may know someone who does, it can paint an inaccurate picture of what their loved one may be experiencing.

AP Stylebook

However, in recent years, the media has been taking steps to improve the portrayal of Bipolar disorder and mental illness as whole. The AP Stylebook was updated in 2013 to help journalists write about mental illness more accurately and with less stigma. Popular TV shows are beginning to provide humanizing and realistic plot arcs for Bipolar characters.

General Hospital

General Hospital, a long-running daytime soap opera, revealed in 2006 that their longtime character and mob boss, Sonny Corinthos, was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. The plot arc gave context for the character’s infamous mood swings, and since the reveal, the show has shed a realistic light on the challenges of Bipolar disorder.


Shameless, an American dramedy, has been often praised for its accurate and touching portrayal of Bipolar disorder. Ian, the third eldest child of the dysfunctional Gallagher family, is diagnosed with the disorder in a season four storyline. As the symptoms begin to appear, viewers are experiencing the confusion, fear, and shame with Ian. Diagnosed in his late teens, we watch his journey coming to terms and managing his new illness. He does suffer moments of relapse, where the symptoms are more intense due to stress - common for those experiencing Bipolar disorder. But through the support of his family and friends, he can hold a job and lead a high-functioning life.

Rookie Blue

Detective Marlo Cruz from Rookie Blue, a police drama, is a supporting character whose storyline revealed that she suffered from Bipolar disorder. She was able to manage her illness without it affecting her job for years. However, the disease came to light during a major plot arc where intense stress from a case forced her to reveal her disorder to the 15 Division. While the show may not have depicted the full extent of Bipolar symptoms and treatment options, Cruz’s character was viewed as an inspiration to many women experiencing Bipolar disorder.

These are just a few examples of how Bipolar disorder is portrayed in the media, ranging from inaccurate to realistic to inspiring. While the media does have a long way to go in providing accurate portrayals of Bipolar disorder, it is good to see the progress that has been made. Here’s to hoping that it continues!

Do you suffer from Bipolar disorder? Is it impeding on your ability to work? If so, it might be a good idea to file a claim for disability benefits. If you are or have been denied your claim, contact Share Lawyers, and we will put our experience to work for you.

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