When it comes to positive representation of mental illness in the media, our options on TV tend to be scarce.
Most shows use mental illnesses like bipolar as punchlines or adjectives, further perpetuating the problematic way we tend to talk about these illnesses at home. The only exception I’ve encountered so far, besides the new show Lady Dynamite, is Showtime’s Shameless. Since the show’s beginning in 2011, they’ve done an amazing job with their honest portrayal of bipolar disorder in Ian Gallagher, played by Cameron Monaghan.
As a person diagnosed with bipolar, and as someone who has many family members with the disorder, seeing a relatable and fair depiction of the disorder means a lot to me. Most shows I’ve seen growing up hadn’t mentioned mental disorders and psychotropic meds at all, while some portrayed features of bipolar treatment as extremely negative or even dangerous.
I’ll never forget how frustrated I felt when I saw Tony flush a bottle of lithium pills down the toilet after it gave him some pretty wild hallucinations in The Sopranos. Since my dad was an avid watcher of the show, I cringed at the thought of my dad seeing this episode and having it confirm his negativity toward treating his bipolar (and specifically his negativity toward lithium, the drug I’m on). I wish my dad watched more Shameless, and observed Ian deal with bipolar and lithium in a more positive way.
Ian’s characters goes through lots of ups and downs in the show (a little bipolar humor there), but none of it is over exaggerated or unreasonable. Bipolar really can look like not leaving your bed for days in depression, and then like hypersexuality and reckless behavior for days in mania, as Ian shows viewers. Luckily, he has his family, who has a lot of knowledge about the disorder since their absent mother Monica also has it. They’re very understanding of his struggle and often point out that his diagnosis was predictable since mood disorders are hereditary. They also do everything they can to advocate for Ian, supporting him through his hospitalization after his third Manic episode, and making sure he took his meds when he was losing hope in his treatment.
Over the progression of the seasons, we get to see Ian slowly progress on his journey. He starts lithium, which makes him very tired and slow. He spends lots of days in bed until his body adjusts, mirroring the reality of taking lithium. Ian gets to a functional level eventually, with most of his symptoms in remission. He enjoys successful relationships, jobs and family time without his mental illness othering him or disabling him from being a kind person.
He starts a job as an EMT in season six, a job he had to fight for after he was discriminated against for having a mood disorder and having been in a psychiatric hospital. He has a manic episode on the job after he breaks up with his boyfriend because his meds had gone out of balance (stress can cause this to happen with mood disorder patients). And once he gets his meds right, he returns to his job feeling healthy again.
Watching Ian’s journey has always been heart wrenching for me because I could relate so much. But I appreciated the show’s positive portrayal of mental illness and medicine, which helped normalize my own experiences a little more. As someone who hasn’t been able to hold down a full time job yet, Ian showed me that it’s possible to get to a point where you can thrive in the workplace and properly advocate for yourself when you’re bipolar and on meds. And the episode where stress triggered an imbalance for him provided me comfort when the same thing happened to me after a close relative of mine had died this year. Before I even spoke to my psychiatrist, I was able to breathe easy knowing that stress could cause a flare in symptoms and that I could get back to the place of balance that I had previously.
Negative portrayals of bipolar in the media (or negative portrayal of drugs like in The Sopranos) are likely to discourage folks like my dad from seeking treatment or talking about their symptoms with a professional. Because when folks with bipolar disorder are so often categorized as violent and unpredictable, and medication like lithium being categorized as dangerous and toxic, it’s hard to want to claim that identity and go forward with treatment.
I’m forever grateful for Shameless. They’ve truly shone a light on bipolar in a way that no other TV show has successfully done, breaking stereotypes of medicine and revealing the honest truth: that people with bipolar are not monsters. I’m lucky to call the character Ian Gallagher my role model, and look forward to further discussion the show facilitates on mental illness in the future.