In a recent blog, we looked at the portrayal of autism in films. Now another recent movie – Silver Linings Playbook – features a central character, Pat Solatano, with bipolar disorder. On his release from a psychiatric hospital, Pat, who is estranged from his wife, moves back in with his parents. Determined to win back his wife, Pat meets recently widowed Tiffany Maxwell, who offers to help him in his mission if in return he enters a dance competition with her. As they become closer Pat, his father, and Tiffany each examine their relationships with each other as they work through their problems.

The 2012 film has gained critical acclaim and several awards. The film is marketed as a feel-good romantic comedy and has been a big hit with the public as well as the critics. But how accurately does it portray mental illness? Bipolar Disorder is a psychological disorder which causes the affected individual to experience severe mood swings between mania and depression.

There have been some concerns that the film portrays the message that in the end, all you need is love to heal mental illness, which could be seen as trivialising the concept of mental health care. At the time, The New Yorker columnist Richard Brody wrote that “the story challenges the medical establishment and the efficacy of medical science in bringing about results . . . .  The movie will be a hit with those who think that hyperactivity is just a failure of discipline and depression merely a bad attitude”.

This view is endorsed by author and psychiatrist Steven Schlozman, MD, from the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who said that  “falling in love is an absolutely awesome, wonderful thing, but it’s not going to cure bipolar disorder any more than it’s going to cure diabetes. The flip side of that is … that people with psychiatric illnesses — horrible depression, bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia — they do better when they’re in love.”

The film also generated a lot of discussion about whether the depiction of bipolar disorder in the movie is accurate – and whether there is a danger that people would be encouraged to laugh at someone needing mental health care. This, however, was refuted by Dr. Michael Blumenfield, MD, president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry  He said that he was worried and a little uncomfortable when he first started watching the movie “I’m always sensitive when people are laughing at people with mental illness, and that’s what it seemed to be doing, not only to the main character but also to some of the other characters. But that soon changed, and I liked the movie very much,” he said.

Dr. Blumenfield also explained that the film should not be construed as saying that this is what bipolar disorder is always like, but that “the movie showed the complexities of disorders and also showed how traumatic events can affect people.”  He says that it is important to remember that it is only a movie, a work of fiction. “and you have to enjoy it as just that. If I were to recommend this to my patients, I would be telling them, ‘This is you. See how it worked out?’ And I don’t think I could do that. To recommend it is to say that this is a typical person with bipolar,” he said. “Somebody with bipolar may identify with it, and that’s okay. And if someone in therapy has already seen this movie and has particular reactions to it, I think it’s great to talk with them about it.”

Whatever you think of the film itself, at Freedom Care we are glad that Silver Linings Playbook has at least raised awareness of people with complex health needs and hope that it may lead to a greater readiness on the part of more people to begin to understand.

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