What The Media Gets Wrong About Mood Disorders

Sometimes a show, movie, or book will portray a mental illness flawlessly. Oftentimes, though, the media wrongly portrays this. I’m here today to bring light to common misconceived mood and personality disorders.

I’ll start with Bipolar Disorder

Let me clarify what bipolar disorder actually is: It’s a cycle of feeling manic (High energy, good mood, feeling powerful, etc.) and depressed (Low mood, low energy, etc.). Here’s the thing that most people might not realize about bipolar disorder: These cycles will last for days/weeks/months. Mood swings that happen in one day are not bipolar disorder.

Silver Linings Playbook seems to portray bipolar disorder well.

A manic phase might look something like this:

Silver Lining Playbook GIF | Gfycat

A depressive state in the same person could look like this:

silver linings playbook jennifer lawrence gif | WiffleGif

Some people even have mania and depression at the same time. It feels as horrible as it looks, I would imagine:

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Bipolar disorder isn’t merely mood swings. To have bipolar disorder, the person would need to be depressed for at least 2 weeks and then feel manic for another two weeks at least (Or feel both at the same time – this state normally wouldn’t last more than a few days). Even in rapid cycling bipolar disorder, the person will *not* experience daily mood swings. Mood swings are a different thing altogether and can be caused by other conditions.

I’ve also seen some people confuse bipolar disorder with multiple personality disorder – these two diagnoses are very different. In fact, I’d say most bipolar people hide their condition well and many people would never think they had the issue (It’s the people closer to them who might notice). You’re more likely to hear about people being wrongfully accused of being bipolar than people who are actually bipolar being properly diagnosed.

Are we crystal? Good! šŸ™‚

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Moving on now to sociopathy/psychopathy. In pop culture, these terms are used gratuitously and people often argue that sociopaths lack empathy but aren’t violent, while psychopaths take this lack of empathy a step further and harm their victim. In the psychology field, there is no actual diagnosis for sociopath or psychopath – they both fall under the same diagnosis as “Antisocial personality disorder”. I touched briefly on this in my character study about Marie, which I’ll link here if you’re interested. For ease of communication, I’ll stick with the term sociopath (since it’s no different, technically, than psychopath).

Not all sociopaths kill or want to kill. Not all of them are sadistic. The key factor is that they lack empathy or regard for the rights of other people. There are some high functioning sociopaths who can function well in society – they can hold down a job and they understand morality well enough that they never actually do anything criminal. Generally, though, they will do things to hurt people simply because they lack what we would call a conscience, or the ability to feel guilt or empathy for others.

8/2/73 ā€” hellyeahhorrormovies: American Psycho, 2000.

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho portrays the murderous sociopath very well. He lacks empathy and can get away with what he does, because, well, he’s a white guy with a high position in a company so no one questions what he does. He hires prostitutes and murders them in his house – or he invites colleagues over to murder them. Essentially, he’s an idiot – and a violent one at that.

There’s also a part where he asks a girl who he’s about to kill to leave – I found this interesting, because there are some rare instances where someone with antisocial personality disorder will feel empathy, or guilt, and it looks like this is one of those times. Maybe he sensed the innocence/kindness in the girl, or it could have been completely random. We never got an internal dialogue as to why he spared her.

american psycho patrick bateman gif | WiffleGif

I read a great novel once that at first portrayed a sociopath so well. It was going really good until she was diagnosed by a psychologist as having bipolar disorder. I was SO disappointed! Bipolar disorder and antisocial personality disorder couldn’t be more different from one another – it really only served the purpose of demoralizing bipolar people further rather than having a great story about a sociopath who realized her condition and went to get help.

Another character who frequently gets called a psychopath is Norman Bates. He actually has multiple personality disorder and dissociative personality disorder (I wrote a paper about this for my psychology program & got an A+, so I know I’m right). He also is voyeuristic. He has empathy, clearly, but he has some odd things about him (Including the fact that he loves his mother and is a voyeur). He’s not a psychopath, though. I mention this, because I’ve seen some references in the media referring to him as a psychopath (He did experience psychosis, but not psychopathy). The poor kid needed medication and serious therapy, but he didn’t receive it.

norman bates gifs Page 8 | WiffleGif

Please research a mood/personality disorder before you write about it. You owe it to your fellow humankind! Thank you. *Gets off soap box*

It’s time to talk about depression. I think, overall, most films, shows, and books actually portray this well. I’m sure a lot of the writers have seen a loved one suffer through depression, or have been depressed themselves at some point. It’s the audience that can sometimes get all testy about how depression is portrayed. The thing with depression is that it can take on a lot of different faces – a high functioning person can look completely put together and even be laughing all the way up until the day they commit suicide. Laughter doesn’t always mean happiness. Having nice hair and a full face of makeup doesn’t mean someone is feeling pretty on the inside. Hannah in 13 Reasons Why portrayed a depressed girl really well, in my opinion. I don’t know why a lot of viewers had such a problem with her. There’s no wrong way to have depression, and sometimes, it can look like this:

Where Is 13 Reasons Why Filmed? Set Locations Revealed... - Capital

On the other hand, the media sometimes forgets to portray the other side of depression – the not showering, forgetting to groom properly, lack of motivation, low appetite/ increased appetite. Basically, the audience doesn’t like to see the grosser side of depression, yet they’ll often complain when a depressed character looks too pretty or too put together to be depressed. Depression takes on many forms and the truth is that many people hide it too well.

I’ll finish this psychology talk with narcissistic personality disorder. We’ve seen a lot of narcissists in books and movies. Basically, every sociopath is a narcissist, but not all narcissists are sociopaths. A lot of people will accuse someone with high confidence, especially a woman, as being a narcissist. I hate to break it to you, but taking pride in how you present yourself is not narcissistic – neither is asking for respect.

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What defines a narcissist? They believe they are better than other people and lack empathy for others (But they do feel empathy sometimes, unlike people with antisocial personality disorder). Patrick Bateman is a great example of a sociopathic narcissist. The film version of Mark Zuckerberg is an example of a narcissist who isn’t sociopathic (I have no idea how realistic the portrayal is for the real life person, so I’m not going to assume if the real person has the disorder). I choose him, because he doesn’t ever really improve throughout the movie. He remains condescending and always puts himself first; he fulfills what his girlfriend accused him of before she left him – that he’s an asshole. I think his redeeming quality is that he seems unaware of his narcissism – men in particular are encouraged to own certain narcissistic traits in order to become successful, so he might very well think he’s doing nothing wrong.

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On one hand, it could be argued that some of the qualities needed to be successful require some narcissistic traits. You do need ambition, belief in yourself, pride in your work, etc. But narcissism takes this a step further. This is what separates confident people from narcissists: Confident people build others up, while the narcissist is only out for himself and he will demean others to put himself further ahead. That’s the key difference.

Taking selfies, having ambition, or promoting your own work probably isn’t narcissistic, but if you notice that you’re often using people or throwing them under the bus to put yourself ahead, you might be a narcissist.

I hope you enjoyed this post! I like fusing my psychology background with my writing. If you want to see more posts about psychology or mental health, please let me know. I might do a monthly post if there’s interest. šŸ™‚ Until next time, take care and have a good day! ā¤

(Photo by mododeolhar from Pexels)


  1. It’s worth knowing these traits and popular media is often getting this and other things wrong. I think the only thing about a narcissist I might add is their inability to look in the mirror on their actions and even try and see of recognise them as their own actions.

    • That could be a narcissistic trait, though you technically need 5 or more traits to have the official disorder. That’s true what you’re saying, though, narcissists won’t own up to their own actions. People don’t have the disorder might have this issue, too, so that’s why it’s best not to diagnose people unless you’re a registered psychologist.

    • This wasn’t meant to be a full comprehensive list of what constitutes narcissistic personality disorder. You can look at the DSM-5 5 to see the 5 traits needed to have it, and again, be careful not to diagnose others with the disorder, because unlike movies, you’re never getting a full glimpse into someone’s life, and it’s easy to have confirmation bias.

  2. Mental health is still a subject that is far from being understood. It’s sad that it receives lesser importance than physical health issues. Thanks for sharing this. It’s informative and very well written.

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