Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by mood swings, from a mood of elation and euphoria (mania or hypomania) to a depressed mood (depression). Hence it was also known as manic-depressive illness.
A manic episode is one of abnormally and persistently expansive, elevated, or irritable mood and goal-directed activity or energy that lasts at least 1 week. These symptoms are present most of the day, nearly every day. Mood in a manic episode is often described as euphoric, excessively cheerful, high, or “feeling on top of the world.”
During the period of mania, three (or more) of the following symptoms (four if the mood is only irritable) are present:
- Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity.
- Decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep).
- More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking.
- Flight of ideas or racing thoughts.
- Distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli).
- Increased goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or purposeless activity (agitated mood and behavior).
- Excessive and impulsive involvement in risky activities (e.g., spending sprees, giving away possessions, reckless driving, foolish business investments, and sexual promiscuity).
The depressive episode is one where five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period (most of the day, nearly every day) and at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure:
- Feels sad, empty, or hopeless, or seen to be tearful.
- Markedly diminished interest in almost all activities that were once pleasurable.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite.
- Sleeplessness or excessive sleep.
- Restlessness or being slowed down.
- Fatigue or loss of energy.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects 2.8 percent, or nearly 6.5 million adults.
Bipolar disorder is very common in artists, writers and other creative individuals, as will be seen from the following famous people and celebrities who suffered from it.
12 Celebrities Who Suffered From Bipolar Disorder
Mariah Carey (b. 1970) is an American singer, songwriter, actress, and record producer. Her eponymous debut album was released in 1990 and it topped the U.S. Billboard200 for eleven consecutive weeks, bringing her popularity and fame. She also achieved the distinction of being the only artist ever to have their first five singles reach number one on the U.S. Billboard100 chart.
She was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001 when she was hospitalized for a mental and physical breakdown. But, she went public with her diagnosis only in April 2018. She did this only when she felt she was “in a good place managing her mental health”. Initially she thought her symptoms were due to a sleep disorder, as she said to People magazine: “For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder. But it wasn’t normal insomnia and I wasn’t lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working … I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania.”
She lived in “denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose” her for years together as she confessed in an interview to People magazine. At first, she “didn’t want to believe” the diagnosis, as she told the magazine, and “didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career … I was so terrified of losing everything.”
“I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating,” she told in that 2018 interview to People magazine by way of signing off.
Carrie Fisher (1956–2016) was an American actress, writer, and comedian. She shot to fame as Princess Leia in the Star Wars movie franchise. Her other film credits include Shampoo (1975), The Blues Brothers (1980), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The Burbs (1989), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Soapdish (1991), and The Women (2008).
Fisher struggled with drug and alcohol problems, in part due to her tumultuous childhood. She first got diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her early 20s, following a near-fatal drug overdose. Her father, Eddie Fisher, was also bipolar. It is well-known that the disorder can run in families. In one of her manic phases, she hacked off her hair, got a tattoo, and even wanted to convert to Judaism.
Initially, she did not believe the psychiatrist when he told her she had hypomania. Over time, however, she came to terms with her condition. She even went on to become a bestselling author, writing books such as Postcards From the Edge.
On stage and in interviews, Fisher became outspoken about her disorder and a strong advocate for mental health. She told the Huffington Post, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”
She died of a heart attack in 2016. Her urn was a giant Prozac pill, keeping in tune with her sense of humor and activism in the mental health community.
“I had really good highs but some very low lows,” is how Mel Gibson described his illness when he announced in 2008 that “he had recently been diagnosed with manic depression [bipolar disorder]”.
Mel Gibson (b. 1956) is an American actor and filmmaker. He is best known for his action hero roles as Max Rockatansky in the trilogy of Mad Max, and as Martin Riggs in the film series Lethal Weapon. Born in Peekskill, New York, Gibson moved to Australia when he was 12 years old.
Gibson has won several awards and honors, including the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government in 1995, which he declined as a protest against France’s resumption of nuclear testing in the Southwest Pacific, and two Academy Award nominations. People magazine named Gibson the “sexiest man alive” in 1985. He has been embroiled in a few controversies as when he berated a police officer during a drunken driving arrest in 2006. He pleaded “no contest” to domestic abuse charges in 2012.
While doubts have been cast on whether Gibson really has bipolar disorder, what we can piece together from his voicemails to his ex-girlfriend, laced with profanity, racial epithets, and threats, is that he seems to be someone who was in a lot of emotional pain and distress, and very, very angry. So, he certainly has mental health issues.
Demetria Lovato (b. 1992) is an American singer, songwriter, actress, and television personality. She rose to prominence for essaying the role of Mitchie Torres in the television film Camp Rock (2008) and its sequel (2010). She has also appeared on several other TV programs and serials.
This singer and actress has released six studio albums, all of which debuted in the top five of the Billboard200. She has had good success as a singer, selling over two million albums and 20 million singles in the United States.
Lovato learned she had bipolar disorder in 2010 when she admitted herself into a clinic for drug addiction and self-harm. “I was dealing with bipolar depression and didn’t know what was wrong with me. Little did I know, there was a chemical imbalance in my brain,” she said.
After successful therapy and treatment, Lovato said, “Now I live well with bipolar disorder. Happiness is a choice. Life is a roller coaster. You can make the highs as amazing as possible, and you can control how low the lows go.”
Given the significant media attention she received in the 2010s for her personal struggles, she published the book Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year (2013), and released Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated (2017), a YouTube documentary about her life and career.
She has used her fame to decrease the stigma around mental illness and advocate for treatment, by taking part in the campaign “Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health” in 2015. Lovato once told WomensHealthMag.com that she wants women to know that “it’s possible to live well, feel well, and also find happiness with bipolar disorder or any other mental illness they’re struggling with.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) was an American journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and sportsman. He published seven novels, six short-story collections, and two nonfiction works. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature. His economical and understated style—“iceberg theory” as per him—influenced 20th-century fiction significantly. He led an adventurous life and his public image brought him admiration from later generations. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
But, this Nobel Prize-winning author was also prone to manic-depressive behavior throughout his life. In fact, his entire family was prone to bipolar disorder, a family trait shared by his parents, son, and granddaughter. Hemingway had spells of paranoia and depression. He eventually shot himself to death in 1961.
Dr. Christopher Martin, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine, diagnosed Hemingway as having “bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probably borderline and narcissistic personality traits” after researching 15 different biographies.
In the memoir “Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival”, Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote that Churchill had bipolar disorder. Despite or because of his personal battles, Churchill was a man of tremendous accomplishments.
Of mixed English and American parentage, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was born in Oxfordshire into a wealthy, aristocratic family. He joined the British Army in 1895, and saw action in several battlefronts. He gained fame as a war correspondent and even wrote books about his campaigns. He became an MP in 1900, on the Conservative ticket, later defecting to the Liberals party in 1904.
Churchill became prime minister of Britain in 1940, and led Britain to victory in World War Two. He often referred to his bouts of depression as his “black dog.” When not depressed he had incredible energy and was highly productive. He often capitalized on episodes of sleeplessness by channeling his energy into his work. He published 43 books during his time as prime minister. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953.
Robert Edward Turner III (b. 1938) is an American media proprietor, producer, and philanthropist. His claim to fame is as the founder of the Cable News Network (CNN), the first 24-hour cable news channel and now a global media conglomerate. The public charity UN Foundation was founded on his $1 billion gift to the UN to broaden domestic support for the UN. At one point, he owned the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, and won the America’s Cup.
But, as luck would have it, Ted has spent much of his life trying to cope with bipolar disorder. His father struggled with the same disorder and actually committed suicide. It was also reported that when his third marriage ended in 2001, Ted contemplated suicide. Ted Turner is one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs and businessmen of the 20th century, in spite of or because of his bipolar disorder. What perhaps explains his success is that people with bipolar disorder are incredibly ambitious and extroverted and don’t need more than four or five hours of sleep a night.
This Welsh-born (b. 1969) and Academy Award winning actress has bipolar II disorder, a form that has longer down periods, following a difficult time in her personal life. Her bipolar disorder came to light in 2011 when she experienced mood swings on account of the stress caused by her husband Michael Douglas’s battle with tongue cancer. The stress was only worsened because of her fight with Douglas’ first wife over royalties from the actor’s movie, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
Talking about her mental illness to Good Housekeeping, Zeta-Jones said, “Finding out that it was called something was the best thing that ever happened to me! The fact that there was a name for my emotions and that a professional could talk me through my symptoms was very liberating. There are amazing highs and very low lows. My goal is to be consistently in the middle.”
Zeta-Jones has been very vocal about her bipolar disorder. She has turned an advocate for eliminating the stigma around mental illness. She hopes that she can inspire more and more people to seek therapy and support.
“With my bipolar becoming public, I hope fellow sufferers will know it’s completely controllable,” Zeta-Jones said. “I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it, and that those who don’t have it under control will seek help with all that is available to treat it.”
Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) sent shock waves through the music industry and general public when he committed suicide at the tender age of 27 in 1994 with a self-inflicted shotgun wound to his head. There was also a history of suicide in his family.
This co-founder of the rock band Nirvana, which appears at number thirty on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists, had suffered from attention deficit disorder in childhood. Later he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. These facts are attested to in an interview of Kurt’s cousin Bev Cobain, who is a registered nurse with work experience in mental health. Other signs pointing in this direction are Cobain’s pressured writing and inordinate production of written declarations, poetry and artwork, his abuse of alcohol and drugs, his high productivity and frenetic energy on stage, and his impulsiveness and lack of inhibition as displayed in his angry letters and his demolitions of stage sets and hotel rooms.
Sadly, however, Cobain did not seek treatment for these mental conditions. Kurt Cobain also battled substance abuse and heroin addiction in the years leading up to his death.
It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that, “In rock guitar, there are but two eras—before Hendrix and after Hendrix”. Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) was an American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His mainstream career lasted only four years. Still, he is considered a very influential guitarist and a celebrated musician of the last century. This rock guitar legend faced early setbacks. He got expelled from high school, and lasted only a year in the Army, getting discharged early. He talked about his travails with mood swings in his song “Manic Depression”.
Hendrix’s performances at Woodstock and Monterey still get talked about today. He died at age 27 in 1970 from barbiturate-related asphyxia. Rolling Stone ranked Hendrix the greatest guitarist and the sixth greatest artist of all time.
Vivien Leigh (1913–1967) is best known for her iconic portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. She was the wife of acclaimed actor Laurence Olivier.
Leigh had a reputation for being difficult on the set. Her erratic behavior eventually ruined her professional reputation and broke her marriage.
She swung between severe depression and mania. As is typical of many bipolar patients, Leigh abused alcohol. In addition, she had chronic insomnia. Lithium was not yet on the scene as a mood stabilizer. So, Leigh was treated with electroconvulsive therapy.
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was considered a madman and a failure during his lifetime. But, today, this Dutch painter is one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. He created around 2,100 artworks, including nearly 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. His paintings are characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork, laying the foundations of modern art. He committed suicide at the young age of 37 after suffering for years from mental illness and poverty.
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew even as a child. As an art dealer in his youth, he became depressed when he was transferred to London. He took solace in religion and even became a Protestant missionary for a little while in Belgium. He took up painting in 1881, having moved back home. He was supported financially by his younger brother Theo. The two corresponded regularly by writing letters to each other. He also spent some time in Paris, getting acquainted with the latest styles in painting.
Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes in the form of delusions and hallucinations. Though his mental health was a major concern for him, he often neglected his physical health. He did not eat properly and drank heavily. Once in a fit of rage, he severed part of his own left ear. He ended up spending time in psychiatric hospitals. However, his mental illness continued and on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver, succumbing to the injuries two days later.