Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a difficult mental health condition to live with for anyone, let alone for people who are famous and constantly in the limelight. Characterized by periods of depression and periods of mania, sufferers are often diagnosed in their 30s, although bipolar disorder is sometimes diagnosed earlier, being rarer in children and teens. For people who suffer from depression alone, treatment is generally much easier. There is often some trial and error in the prescription of medication, because everyone is different. Where some will respond to one drug, another may not. On the whole, however, antidepressant medication has come a long way, and depressive people are much better off these days than patients even thirty years ago. Not necessarily so for people living with bipolar disorder.
Lithium has been prescribed to people with manic depression/bipolar disorder, civilian and famous alike, since the end of the 19th century. It is still the number one go-to drug today, first under “Medications” for the disorder on the famous Mayo Clinic’s website. This drug, which is sometimes reported to cause patients to feel numb or like zombies, is followed by a long list of other prescription medications, which include anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, antidepressants (which can trigger a manic episode and so must be taken with mood stabilizers), mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications. Doctors will prescribe one at a time, but over time many people end up being on a combination, and over their lifetime must be followed closely, often having the combination of their medications adjusted. It can be a tedious and discouraging process, but what is most difficult about the disorder is that many people ultimately do not want to be medicated, despite the fact that it is not uncommon to end up addicted to alcohol and illegal drugs, go bankrupt and even lose one’s family.
No one wants their lives ruined. Unfortunately, a manic episode is so exhilarating, it can be addictive. When manic, people report feeling like they have an endless supply of energy. This is often when they work best, conceiving lofty ideas and achieving a lot in short periods of time. They can feel a “high” that is compelling. Negative aspects of mania include extreme spending, sex addiction/having affairs, gambling, and even suffering from hallucinations, hence the antipsychotics. Despite these risks, mania feels great, according to many who have experienced the feeling. In fact, many bipolar people who have ended up committing suicide often do so after a mania ends, frequently brought about by being prescribed a medication to “bring them down.”
Famous people thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder in the past include Charles Dickens, Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, Georg Cantor, Kurt Cobain, Connie Francis, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Abbie Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Edvard Munch, Friedrich Nietzsche, Florence Nightingale and many more. Some of these individuals had auditory or visual hallucinations, combined with other behaviors that are now more easily identifiable as being associated with this medical disorder.
The U.S.A.’s National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 2.6 percent of the adult U.S. population suffers from this condition (to be counted, they have to suffer from the illness for a year or more), with the bulk of these (2.2 percent) experiencing severe cases. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 25 percent of the country’s 316 million people are adults. This means that roughly five-and-a-quarter million people suffer from severe bipolar disorder, and the figure is greater for those who have the condition at all. For this reason some of the stigma associated with the illness has softened, and more and more famous celebrities are being open about their suffering. Here is a list of 10 of these people, in alphabetical order:
1. Robert Downey, Jr
This movie star who has been in numerous films, most recently the Ironman and Sherlock Holmes movies, is reported by loved ones to have been diagnosed with the disorder and to have spoken or written about it privately. However, when asked about it, he usually categorically denies such a diagnosis. Behaviors he has exhibited that fit in with the illness include extreme, ongoing drug addiction and overspending. Downey has had trouble with the IRS and has had major financial difficulties, despite his major earnings. He has also served prison time related to his drug use and carrying a weapon. He has reportedly refused to have a complete psychological analysis, claiming his ups and downs are what makes him successful.
2. Richard Dreyfuss
An American actor known for his many film roles including in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mr. Holland’s Opus and the television show Parenthood, Dreyfuss told Today morning show hosts that learning he had bipolar disorder took away all his guilt. For most of his life he experienced intense emotions, but did not know the cause. He reported being made aware throughout his life that many things he thought were good were in fact, odd or unusual, and he thought he “turned” bad to good. He has done work with the Hope for Depression Research Foundation and speaks out against stigma and shame, as he believes “everybody’s got something.”
3. Larry Flynt
A porn magnate, Larry Flynt told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he is bipolar and so can recognize symptoms in someone like Charlie Sheen. He describes euphoria and how many people have done their best work during such times. He also said that when he read the book the Gettysburg Address it seemed clear to him, although the author did not make the connection with the former president’s sexual conduct, that Abraham Lincoln was manic depressive. Other people have also thought so.
4. Robert Munsch
This Canadian children’s author originally from Pennsylvania went public with his mental-health status in 2010. Of his many picture books, perhaps the best known are the Paper Bag Princess and Love You Forever. In 2010 Munsch posted a “Note to Parents” on his website, saying he had been diagnosed as bipolar and obsessive-compulsive. Although his family and close friends had always known of his troubles, he wanted his fans to know he had made “some big mistakes.” In an interview shortly after he admitted to having had an ongoing cocaine and alcohol addiction, but said he was then clean. He hoped people would understand and do the same for their own family members, listening to their children and helping with their struggles.
5. Jane Pauley
A former Dateline NBC co-host, Jane Pauley wrote a memoir about her experiences with bipolar disorder. The book, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, was published in 2005. When she began giving interviews about it a year prior, it surprised all her colleagues to learn that she had had this diagnosis and that during a leave from the network she had been admitted to a clinic for psychiatric treatment. Pauley wished to be forthcoming with her own history and struggles to raise awareness of the disorder.
6. Alonzo Spellman
This former NFL defensive lineman (Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions) felt fortunate to be able to deal with his journey into gray, as he described it, and still be able to play football, unlike other pro-athletes whose bouts with mental illness have been the end of their careers. Spellman describes having been accustomed to his black periods and his white periods, either horribly low or dazzlingly bright, and when he was first medicated he felt there was something wrong with the gray area he found himself in. Although in a 2006 interview with ESPN he said he knew he had to live in the gray areas, he has since gone off his medications and had more than one public incident, altercations with the law, and jail time.
7. Ted Turner
A former media mogul and cable-television titan (CNN, TBS, WTBS, TNT), Turner has been married and divorced three times, most notably to Jane Fonda. Despite the heights he reached, Turner lost a lot due to his struggles with bipolar disorder, including power and money. In a 2003 interview with Forbes Turner admitted to being bitter about losing control of an arena that he once had total control over, and also admitted it was largely due to his mental illness. He also told Forbes that after his world essentially crumbled around him he contemplated suicide, as his father had done 30 years prior.
8. Jean-Claude Van Damme
This action film star warned people on a British reality show in 2011 that sometimes they would love him and sometimes they would hate him. He describes himself as being an extreme bipolar, and has memories of extreme mood swings as a younger person. He is taking medication for his condition.
9. Pete Wentz
Bassist for the pop-punk band Fall Out Boy (Grammy-nominated for Best New Band in 2006), Wentz has been in the tabloids a lot. He was diagnosed as a teen, and takes anti-anxiety medication and sleep aids. In 2005 he denied having attempted suicide after he passed out on an overdose of anti-anxiety medication. In an interview with Rolling Stone he said he could not sleep at all and just wanted his head to “shut-off.”
10. Catherine Zeta-Jones
The most recent celebrity in the news to come forward as having been diagnosed with the disorder, Catherine Zeta-Jones told ABC that bipolar disorder can strike any time, sometimes after a prolonged period of stress. She said that in her case she was diagnosed at 41, after having supported her equally famous husband Michael Douglas during his battle with throat cancer and also through legal issues with his former wife. Zeta-Jones was diagnosed with bipolar II, which is characterized by longer depressive periods than the more common form of the disorder.
By Julie Mahfood