Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Bipolar: Research It Before You Use It

Bipolar disorder seems to be a popular disorder for writers.

Not that the writers suffer from this disorder themselves, but often their characters do. Why? The motivation is simple: Someone who alternates between depressed spells and super-duper energetic mania makes for a more interesting, multilayered character than someone who stays in bed all day, crying and eating.

I have a problem when authors seemingly pluck bipolar disorder from the Box o’ Character Vices and unrealistically portray it on their pages. My theory is that bipolar disorder gets picked on and abused because of its unusual and fascinating nature.

When someone mentions bipolar, most people immediately think of a person jumping back and forth between depression and mania like they are on a pogo stick. While this depiction is clinically simplistic, it exemplifies how mental disorders become clichéd or stereotyped. For example, not all who have schizophrenia hear voices, not all people with obsessive-compulsive disorder wash their hands until they are raw, and not all people with eating disorders throw up.

Discussing mania is the best place to put an end to the misuse of this disorder. A person can experience varying degrees of mania. Some people go into full-blown mania, which impairs their functioning ability and lasts for at least a week, but others experience only hypomania, which is an elevated mood lasting four to seven days. When the person is actively manic, they don’t think or admit that anything is wrong. They probably look forward to those time periods, where they have endless energy, need little sleep, and are prolifically creative and productive.

Sadly, they also usually max out credit cards, dwindle away their savings by gambling, or get into car accidents for recklessly driving too fast. Depending on what their vice is when they aren’t actively in the throes of mania, a person with bipolar disorder will overindulge and “binge” on that vice. For instance, an author who is bipolar will most likely binge on writing when they are manic.

The depression experienced by sufferers of bipolar disorder also varies. Some get so depressed they experience psychotic symptoms like hallucinations or paranoia. Some have a milder form of depression, like being so melancholic they can’t fathom getting out of bed. Both forms of depression interfere with day-to-day functioning. Depression is far more likely to dominate the person’s life than mania or hypomania, which is not the prevailing association with bipolar. (Remember the pogo stick?)

I want to address the issue of swinging back and forth. When a person makes this “swing,” it’s called cycling. Usually the two extremes bookend periods of normalcy, a fact that often gets left out of fictional depictions. Characters with this disorder don’t always have to act erratic or unpredictable, they can just be “themselves.”

Only 10 to 20 percent of people with bipolar have what is called rapid cycling. Rapid cycling means that the person experiences at least four episodes of depression or mania a year. That’s a year,

not every couple of pages in your manuscript. It’s far more likely that the person lingers through each stage a bit longer, but no two people cycle the same.

Janice might cycle every three months regularly, while Peter might switch from mania to depression in January, be fine for ten months, and then switch again from mania to depression in December. Because both of them have four episodes within a year, they both are considered rapid cyclers, but you can see how Janice’s life would be very different from Peter’s (and therefore make for a far different character).

Okay, then. On to my recommendations for how to write a character with realistic bipolar disorder:

Be purposeful. Don’t let a lack of plot drive you to pigeonholing a character with bipolar. If your character needs something to “shake things up” midway through a sagging middle, don’t use bipolar to do it. Giving a character bipolar as a way of explaining their erratic or out-of-the-norm behavior takes the easy way out.

Pass time by utilizing the cycles. It’s just not probable for a character to be terribly depressed on one page, bouncing around like a Ping-Pong ball the next page, and then crying again by the very next page. I’ve read this scenario, and it just made me roll my eyes. While it may be fun to write, it’s not common, so therefore it’s not realistic.

Become familiar with what can trigger a switch into the opposite extreme. A few triggers can realistically cause someone to cycle into mania or depression. Some of the more common ones are use of alcohol and drugs—antidepressants, as well as street drugs—and life stressors, like death of a loved one and loss of job.

Don’t overdo it. A little bipolar goes a long way.

A Web site to tuck away for future research is the Depression and Bipolar Disorder Alliance site, They have great downloadable .pdf files to reference under their Learn About Mood Disorders tab. If you want to understand in layman’s terms more about how rapid cycling can vary, visit


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