News: Settling Unquiet Minds

Britney Spears' meltdown might be a teaching moment

Feb 13, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Perhaps the only people who haven't heard about the frequent public meltdowns by fading Pop singer Britney Spears are those who don't read newspapers, watch TV or have access to the Internet. For the rest of us, even those who dislike our culture's obsession with celebrity, the bizarre situation has been nearly unavoidable.

One potential benefit from the tragic spectacle, though, might be to increase awareness about bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions and reduce the stigma attached to them, experts say.

Although Britney hasn't yet revealed whether she's been diagnosed with a biologically-based brain disorder, some physicians say she shows many of the symptoms. It's prompted TV commentators and others to do research and learn more about the condition that's far more common than most people realize.

About 10 million people in the United States have bipolar disorder. An estimated two-thirds of people with the illness aren't properly diagnosed or treated, and the mortality rate for people with untreated bipolar disorder is higher than it is for most types of heart disease and some types of cancer.

More than 60 percent of individuals who commit suicide struggle with a depressive illness or bipolar disorder, statistics indicate.

The condition usually affects not only the patient but all of his or her relationships and often is misdiagnosed as hyperactivity or substance abuse.

Ed, a businessman who lives in Madeira, knows first-hand how a misdiagnosis can wreck lives.

For more than a decade, his wife's erratic, irrational behavior disrupted their marriage and threatened their finances. Little changed despite frequent visits to doctors until last summer, when one diagnosed her as bipolar.

When she initially was diagnosed with depression, the medications Ed's wife was given threw her into a manic state. At that point, a doctor gave her Ritalin for A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), causing a severe low period.

Once another physician correctly diagnosed her as bipolar, Ed's wife started two medications that evened out her mood swings and allowed her to lead a productive life. It also saved their marriage, he says.

"As soon as she started taking it, there was a noticeable difference in a period of weeks," Ed says. "Our relationship was teetering on the brink of ending because we couldn't figure out what was going on."

While the disorder's existence has become well-known, many people don't fully understand the illness, says John Hawkins, a psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati and is a director at the Lindner Center of HOPE, a mental health facility under construction in Mason.

"You'll hear high school kids say, ¨Oh, you're so bipolar' to each other, but you would never see them go up to someone and say, ¨Oh, you have cancer,' " Hawkins says. "Some people still think of it as a joke."

Hawkins, who's treated hundreds of bipolar patients during his career, says the illness's effects are no laughing matter. The extreme highs of manic episodes can lead to risk-taking that can include behavior like having unsafe sex with strangers, drug abuse or excessive gambling; the extreme lows of depressive episodes can cause suicidal thoughts, changes in appetite and loss of sleep.

Bipolar disorder — also known as manic depression — is a medical illness that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and functioning, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The illness is a chronic and generally life-long condition with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from days to months that can begin at any age.

Most sufferers generally require some sort of treatment, NAMI says. While medication is one element in successful treatment, others include psychotherapy, support groups and education.

NAMI's Hamilton County chapter is bringing Kay Redfield Jamison to town to speak about the illness. A professor at John Hopkins School of Medicine, she revealed her own struggles with bipolar disorder in the New York Times bestselling memoir, An Unquiet Mind. She'll speak Feb. 26 at the University of Cincinnati.

For more information on NATIONAL ALLIANCE ON MENTAL ILLNESS, visit or call 513-458-6670.