Given his recent television interviews, viral video ranting and rooftop, machete-wielding tirades, it would not have raised any eyebrows whatsoever if it had been revealed that actor Charlie Sheen had checked himself into the hospital for treatment of a mood disorder. However, the recent disclosure by actress Catherine Zeta-Jones that she recently spent time in the hospital for treatment of Bipolar II Disorder did leave many surprised and some confused by her diagnosis.
In what used to be known as manic-depressive disorder, an individual with bipolar disorder can experience cycles of clinical depression alternating with episodes of manic or euphoric energy. During the manic phase of the illness, the person may be unable to sleep for days; display rapid or pressured speech, engage in behaviors that are risky, such as spending excessive amounts of money or becoming involved with people that are not well-known to them. They may exhibit grandiose thinking and in some cases lose touch with reality altogether. Someone with Bipolar II disorder will have depressive episodes but their mania will be less than full-blown. Or it may appear as irritability, rather than mania. According to some estimates, one in six people suffers from bipolar disorder.
The disclosure of a mental health problem by someone who is prominent, well-known or admired can have positive benefits. As anyone working in the field of mental health can attest, it is often stigma, shame or embarrassment that prevents an individual from seeking treatment. Back in the early 1980s, Academy Award winning actress Patty Duke revealed in her autobiography that after years of erratic behavior, mood swings, insomnia and self-medicating in an effort to manage her symptoms, she had finally been properly diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder, what we now call bipolar disorder. Not only did she seek treatment, she did something unprecedented at the time: she talked about her illness publicly, even before members of Congress did, in an effort to raise awareness and increase funding for mental health treatment.
Following her treatment for alcoholism at the Naval Facility in Long Beach, California, former First Lady Betty Ford went very public with her experience, opening her own treatment center, allowing both the well-known and the unknown to gain recovery from addiction.
Whether or not Catherine Zeta-Jones becomes an advocate for mental illness is unclear. But her disclosure has already dispelled at least one stereotype: you cannot always tell if somebody is suffering from mental illness merely by looking at them. Her admission may prompt someone who suspects something might be wrong to take the next, critical step — talking with someone. Trying to diagnose oneself is rarely productive, but talking with an experienced, well-trained professional can assist an individual in identifying whether or not they have a mental illness. While bi-polar disorder has tended to be overdiagnosed in recent years, careful assessment of symptoms can yield an accurate diagnosis. Psychotherapy and medication are usually an effective combination for managing the symptoms.
That Catherine Zeta-Jones was able to release the information herself, rather than having a tabloid “out” her, is indeed a victory. Her honesty, which has allowed an open discussion about a complex mental health issue, is a victory for everyone.
Ric Kristal is a clinical psychologist praticing in Bangor.