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Bipolar Disorder: A Silver Lining in a Mainstream Film? Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Unlike many films depicting mental illness, the theme of stigma is not central to Silver Linings Playbook. In fact, the audience is even encouraged to feel positively towards some symptoms of mental illness – overly tidy habits and being the life of the party, for example. When the film shows Pat jogging with a black trash sack over his clothes to make him sweat, the audience is meant to laugh; these eccentricities are treated with affection and humor.

In fact, some of the more amusing dialogue happens when the characters are at their most dysfunctional. Pat and Tiffany both show a brazen disregard for social conventions, and it is at these moments that the characters are both funny and yet insightful with their disarming honesty. It may be uncomfortable for the audience to sit through such awkward social interactions, and yet these characters’ directness is charming – we don’t have the nerves to say half the things they do, but we’d certainly like to, and the film allows us to experience this freedom from convention through the characters’ honest-to-a-fault dialogue.

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Of course, some filmgoers may wonder if it is appropriate to find humor in the interactions of two mentally unstable people. Is laughter an appropriate mechanism to use when showing viewers a sensitive subject like mental illness? Well, it is Hollywood, so perhaps the joke is on us for being conventional and having to worry that our laughter might make the wrong impression.

This issue of humor in Silver Linings Playbook highlights the complexities of where we draw the line between behavior that is acceptable, endearing and funny, and behavior that requires medication and therapy. Understanding the nuances of this division between eccentricity and mental illness explains why many people spend years undiagnosed; the character Pat, for example, was not labeled as bipolar until well into adulthood, and Pat’s father has clearly spent his whole life refusing to accept that his OCD tendencies might be a form of mental disorder.

The similarities between Pat and his father remind the audience that although environment can influence or exacerbate mental illness, most disorders are acquired through genetic hardwiring inherited from our parents. These genetic factors in mental illness are certainly a good reason to encourage families to give more credence to early signs of mental issues, and to not be afraid to draw parallels between generations, however uncomfortable it may feel to do so. Too often, signs of mental illness are ignored in young people because the behavior represents similar, deeply rooted issues in a parent that may have long been ignored.

Perhaps one of the film’s more controversial themes centers on the subject of medication. Initially, medication is Pat’s nemesis; he is embarrassed and resentful that he has to take it, but finally agrees to do so when it becomes clear that he cannot maintain any kind of meaningful equilibrium without the pills. This plot point suggests that medication does not always affect a patient negatively, despite the fact that of plenty of books and films stigmatize the use of drugs as a treatment for mental disorders.

Silver Linings Playbook’s balanced approach to the question of medication is important, because for many, the benefits of medication or other treatment options far outweigh potential side effects; particularly for those with depression or bipolar disorder. Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, for example, has openly gone on record and written books about her struggle with bipolar disorder and, in fact, attributes much of her current equilibrium to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT); a highly controversial and stigmatized treatment which has a surprisingly high success rate with many patients suffering from depression and mania.

The film ultimately does fall into a slightly formulaic ‘love conquers all’ feel-good pattern towards the end, which has disappointed some critics because, whilst doctors would all agree that the uplifting benefits of love can’t be underplayed, therapy, medication and hard work are the most important aspects of recovering from mental illness. The support of loved ones is important as well, and as we see in Silver Linings Playbook, Pat has unswerving support, loyalty and love from his parents, which is a huge help to the character’s recovery efforts.

Oddly, the depressive aspects of bipolar disorder are largely ignored in this film, and it feels as though there’s a darker part of the story still waiting to be told. It’s a huge oversight because although manic episodes can be very unpleasant for sufferers, the lows from depression – the polar opposite of mania – can prove to be far more debilitating and far reaching. But, as a mainstream film dealing with mental illness in an everyday context, Silver Linings Playbook certainly pushes the boundaries, blows away a few stereotypes, and has opened an all-important public dialogue about mental health.

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