Tag Archives: manic depression

What’s it really like to live with mental illness? Stephen Fry, bipolar and suicide

6 Jun
Banner from Stephen Fry's website

Banner from Stephen Fry’s website

Yesterday, Stephen Fry – actor, comedian and writer, national treasure and president of mental health charity Mind who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – spoke about his 2012 suicide attempt. Today, the press reported the suicide attempt of Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris and speculation about a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The day’s press has been full of reports of these stories, together with supposedly contextual information on bipolar and suicide. Sadly, coverage I’ve seen so far has been unhelpful to those managing mental health problems and those wishing to know more about them.

As I tweeted earlier:

“I think if you’d just been diagnosed with bipolar & read that piece, you could think your life was over. There’s nothing to give you hope.”

This is the piece on Stephen Fry & bipolar disorder that got me started. Written by BBC health and science reporter James Gallagher and tweeted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, at first glance it appears informative and well written: it quotes a scientific study, includes quotes from Fry himself as well as a mental health professional and a mental health charity, and includes links to sources of further information. So far so good.

However, look closer and the piece is a load of clichés linked together into a web of misleading hogwash. What are the problems with the article? Here’s a quick whizz through:

  • Speculation: “There are suggestions that at least a quarter and maybe even half of patients make at least one attempt.” Suggestions? You’d want to be really sure before delivering such a miserable prognosis to the legions of people in the UK who experience bipolar disorder.
  • The black and white characterisation of bipolar disorder as consisting of mania and depression, when it is far more nuanced.
  • The description of mania as being “extreme happiness and creativity”. Which really sounds like something we’d all enjoy!
  • References to “hypermania”, which has become the grey squirrel to hypomania’s red squirrel across today’s media coverage, the former existing only in journalists’ spellcheckers. I call it Hypermania Cluster Disorder; or “I’m too lazy to check the spelling for this pop science piece I’ve been told to write”.
  • Bald statements such as “There is no cure for bipolar disorder” deliver a bleak prognosis without recognising that, for instance, many people experience differing diagnoses throughout their lives. If someone’s diagnosis changes, are they cured, did they never have the disorder in the first place or does it reflect differences in clinical judgment?
  • Linking bipolar disorder to drink and illicit drugs, which some people objected to on Twitter today since they’d never taken either.
  • Only passing reference to the fact that, for many people, bipolar isn’t a second by second living hell but an episodic experience – a relapsing and remitting condition, in the jargon.

On the one hand, it’s good to see pieces in the media about serious issues like bipolar disorder and suicide: for too long, mental illness has been a secret shame kept hidden in the shadows. Yet, on the other, it’s not good to have misleading cliches & miserable hope-destroying myths doing the rounds.

A diagnosis of serious mental illness shouldn’t be a death sentence. Yet pop pieces like this make it sound like it is. Millions of people are getting on with their lives, passing by in the streets, buying their lunch, sitting on buses, managing conditions. The reality of living with a mental health condition isn’t reflected in articles like these.

As Mental Health North East (support for the north east mental health voluntary sector) tweeted:

“Was half expecting the article to contain a photo of Stephen Fry clutching his head on current BBC form #headclutcher

This story again raises for me a question I often ask: who speaks for mental illness? Who speaks for those of us managing mental health problems? Who speaks out with information in the face of a breaking story where the media’s emphasis is on speed rather than accuracy, on getting your story out there rather than educating and informing? Today’s stories, whilst on the surface being about the dramatic event of a suicide attempt are, underneath it all, really about what sometimes happens in the day to day realities of living with and managing a mental health problem. Where have we heard that story reported today?


Below I’ve linked to people’s first hand experiences of managing bipolar disorder as well as sources of information, together with commentary and news reporting of today’s stories (if you don’t know where to start, try the commentaries and first hand experiences).


web links 5


Commentary following the reporting of Stephen Fry’s 2012 suicide attempt:


First hand experiences of bipolar disorder:


Sources of information on bipolar disorder:


Some information on suicide:


News coverage of Stephen Fry’s 2012 suicide attempt: