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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Carrie Fisher’s “Bipolar Incident” Shows Progress in Fighting Stigma

Carrie Fisher speaking at the 2012 Comic-Con International in San Diego.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore - Flickr)

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

Carrie Fisher is much more than the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies.

“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” said actress she said in a television interview in 2001, disclosing that she lives with bipolar disorder.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that.”

“I survived that. I am still surviving it.”

The disclosure led to NAMI honoring Fisher with its Purdy Award, presented each year to a person who has made a national contribution toward ending the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental illness.

Fisher’s words are now echoing across more than a decade, after she was hospitalized on Feb. 24, following a bipolar episode during a performance on a Caribbean cruise ship.

There was a brief frenzy in the news media. Fisher had appeared drunk, slurring words and singing off key. But the tone of the news coverage seemed somehow different than that surrounding other celebrity misfortunes.

It seemed to reflecting greater understanding that bipolar disorder is a medical condition.

An ABC News headline called the story a “bipolar incident.”

“There was a medical incident related to Carrie Fisher’s bipolar disorder. She went to the hospital briefly to adjust her medication and is feeling much better now,” said a representative of the actress—who was carefully quoted in news accounts.

Bipolar disorder can be managed, but it can’t be cured.

In 2008, Fisher published a humorous memoir Wishful Drinking that includes her struggle with mental illness. She then turned it into a stage performance and an HBO documentary.

“Having waited my entire life to get an award for something…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill, she wrote in the book.

“I’m apparently very good at it… It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic it would be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year.”

But Fisher has also been deadly serious in raising public awareness about bipolar disorder.  She has compared the condition to fighting in Afghanistan.

“In this case the bombs and bullets come from the inside.”

Besides the pills that a person has to take, “they should issue medals.”

If news coverage of Fisher’s recent bipolar incident does indeed reflect a more informed shift in tone in the news media, at least part of the credit should go to her contributions to public education.

 

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