Category Archives: Diagnosis

Bipolar Disorder

Britney Spears

Bipolar affective disorder (BAD) is a lifelong psychiatric illness characterized by severe and extreme mood instability. Also referred to as manic depression, people with bipolar fluctuate between periods of intense high and low moods like baseball fans following their beloved team deep into the October playoffs (Go GIANTS!!!). Many mainstream films have portrayed characters suffering from BAD – Mad Love, Bulworth, Running With Scissors, and King of California. Numerous famous folks have also been associated with the illness, including Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent van Gogh, and Britney Spears.

As its name suggests, people with bipolar vacillate between poles of euphoria, irritability, and depression, like a perpetually swinging pendulum. The mood episodes are sustained, autonomous, and occur independently of external circumstances and are not caused by substance use. For example, a person who flies high on cloud nine by winning the lottery, falls despondent after carelessly losing the winning ticket, and then becomes enraged when intoxicated at the bar is not bipolar. Moreover, people who experience severe mood instability that is triggered by interpersonal relationship difficulties are often misdiagnosed with BAD, but instead may suffer from borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The expansive or abnormally irritable moods are referred to as mania or hypomania, with the former being more intense and severe.  A manic episode lasts for at least one week and is accompanied with symptoms such as decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, hypertalkativeness, racing thoughts, increased goal-directed behavior, and impulsivity in pleasurable activities like spending money and sexual indiscretion. Psychosis may even ensue. Feeling energetically on top of the world, manics may generate many creative and innovative ideas. Our world would definitely not be as advanced and inspiring as it is today without the actors, entrepreneurs, mathematicians, musicians, and writers who lived with bipolar disorder.

Mania becomes concerning and problematic when people begin to lose their insight and judgment, making ill-advised decisions and engaging in destructive behavior – remember Britney Spears shaving her head completely bald and attacking an SUV with an umbrella? Social and occupational functioning may be profoundly impaired, necessitating involuntary inpatient hospitalization and mood-stabilizing medications.

Depressive episodes are more psychologically distressing to the individual than manic ones. Would you rather be anhedonic and socially withdrawn or elated and running around Nordstrom maxing out your credit cards?  Depression occurs 3 times as often than mania and raises the risk of suicide. Up to 50 percent of people with BAD attempt suicide, and 15 percent die from completing it.  Kurt Cobain, who was suspected of suffering from bipolar depression, sadly ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

BAD is a chronic illness which causes episodic and persistent functional debilitation. Psychiatric treatment is necessary to stabilize mood and maintain day-to-day functioning. Referred to as an illness that “benefits mankind at the expense of the individual,” I wonder if the aforementioned famous manic depressives were aware of their generosity in bestowing upon us The Fifth Symphony, The Tell-Tale Heart, and Starry Night, respectively. And I certainly cannot forget to include Oops!…I Did it Again.


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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The OCD Project (2010)

Summer television has arrived and with it comes the barrage of new and returning unscripted reality programs. 57 and 65, respectively, to be precise. One can probably identify numerous implicit psych issues embedded in some of the reality shows, and likely more so in their cast members.  I don’t watch Jersey Shore, Bridezillas, or Toddlers and Tiaras, but I’m sure that the DSM-IV applies to some individuals on those shows as much as an instruction manual titled “How to Clean Up an Oil Spill” to BP.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the focus of the new voyeuristic reality series The OCD Project.  It airs on VH1 and follows a group of six strangers diagnosed with quite severe OCD, who are forced to live together under one roof to receive intensive exposure therapy treatment.  It’s Intervention meets Fear Factor.  Dr. David Tolin, a PhD clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, plays the host and head therapist on the show.

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Obsessions are persistent anxiety-provoking thoughts that invade one’s conscious awareness; they are distressingly difficult to ignore like seeing a pregnant woman drinking a 40 and smoking a pack of Marlboros. Obsessions commonly have a fearful theme that either neglecting to do something or making a mistake will lead to some sort of catastrophe.  For example, “If  I don’t check if the front door is locked 6 times before I leave the house, then I’ll get into a car accident today.” Other types of obsessions may center on a fear of contamination, a need for exactness or symmetry, irrational saving and hoarding, or unpleasant aggressive impulses and sexual imagery.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors performed intentionally to neutralize or alleviate the anxiety resulting from the obsessions. These rituals may range from subtle mental acts like counting or repeating numbers to more obvious physical acts like excessive hand-washing, checking, or rearranging objects. Compulsive behaviors consume time and interfere with routine activities, often to the point of severe functional debilitation. Imagine if the Iron Chef had OCD relating to a fear of contamination and had to wash his hands every time he felt germs defiled them. What type of cuisine, if any, would be prepared then?

Interestingly, many famous and successful celebrities live with OCD. Billy Bob Thorton reportedly obsesses about repetition, Cameron Diaz doorknobs, Howie Mandel germs, and David Beckham symmetry and evenness. In his role as Howard Hughes (who also suffered from OCD) in The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio channeled his childhood obsessions with sidewalks to devotedly play the part more effectively.

Reality shows can be repulsively annoying or entertaining and amusing to watch. The OCD Project is definitely more of the latter. It raises awareness of OCD to the mainstream and helps destigmatize mental illnesses, of which I’m definitely a proponent. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that it does so at the expense of exploiting and tormenting its cast members in its attempt to cure them of their disorders. Although the VH1 network executives are probably concerned primarily about the show’s numbers and lucrativeness, I hope that patient care is the foremost interest for Dr. Tolin.


Filed under Celebrities, Diagnosis, Television