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Double Standard for Bipolar Disorder

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Sometimes, it seems that there is a double standard, a bipolarity, if you will, concerning bipolar disorder. On the one hand, there is the bipolar disorder that according to the NIMH's Web site afflicts 2.6 % of adults in this country. A serious condition, it is nonetheless treatable and rarely leads to arrests or criminal behavior.

On the other hand, there is the bipolar disorder that allegedly afflicts celebrities such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, current Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., Mel Gibson and others. This type of bipolar invariably comes to light after some famous person has behaved badly. That is why I am always somewhat skeptical of these supposed diagnoses. (It also never ceases to amaze me when celebrities claim to have bipolar disorder, rather than a psychotic illness; other than the brilliant Beach Boy Brian Wilson, I can't recall one celebrity who has ever admitted to suffering from schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, or depression with psychotic features, all of which carry significantly more stigma than bipolar disorder, as I have discussed before.)

I don't doubt that Patrick Kennedy has addiction issues, a tragic condition. And I commend him now, as I have in the past, for the fine work he did with his late father, former Sen. Ted Kennedy, in passing the mental-health parity law a few years ago. Yet it is hard for me to view Patrick Kennedy as a paragon on the mental-health front because, among other misdeeds, he wrecked his car and damaged a yacht, according to reports, and then had the chutzpah to cite his mental illness as the excuse behind these irresponsible and destructive acts.

Similarly, Jesse Jackson, Jr., whom Patrick Kennedy visited not long ago at the Mayo Clinic, announced only in recent months that he suffers from mental illness. The admission was tortured, beginning with a statement that he was being treated for "exhaustion," then for a mood disorder, and finally for bipolar disorder. All of this of course occurred after Congressman Jackson became the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation into his allegedly trying to influence former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in securing President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

Once again, I don't doubt that Rep. Jackson is undergoing stress, and I wish him well in his recovery.

But it is sad to me that he and former Rep. Kennedy, as well as other celebrities, have become poster boys for mental illness when in fact they should be poster boys for questionable behavior.

The truth is that even if they do suffer from bipolar disorder, Kennedy, Jackson and other celebrities represent only a fringe of the mentally ill. The vast majority of people with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses do not engage in violent, destructive or criminal activity. And most of us (my current diagnosis is major depression with psychotic features) are responsible citizens who are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime.

I had occasion recently to meet with one such upstanding citizen named Tom Brayton, a musician who hails from Claremont, an hour's drive east of Los Angeles.

Brayton, a young man, whose clean-cut, earnest appearance calls to mind that of a dark-haired altar boy, was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 29. Now 38, he not only has never committed any crimes or violent acts, he has dedicated his life to writing and recording music, a passion of his since childhood. The NYU grad, who majored in liberal arts, not music, is fortunate in that he has a career he loves as well as the support of his girlfriend, Katie, also a musician, his family and his psychiatrist, whom he has been seeing since he was first diagnosed in 2004.

Although Brayton has never harmed anyone, that is not to say that he has not battled demons. In one of his two manic episodes, he got into a confrontation with a "300 pound bouncer" who would not let him into a club because he was wearing long shorts and a leather jacket. Fortunately, no altercation ensued.

And while he never planned to commit suicide, Brayton said that during his depressive phases, "the thought was always there."

Brayton, who has stabilized over the past eight and one-half years due to therapy and a regimen of lithium and Wellbutrin, once feared that ingesting lithium might "turn him into a zombie." Not only has it not turned him into a zombie, it has allowed him to thrive artistically. "I can guarantee you it's way beyond the placebo effect," he said, while seated at a banquette at Hamburger Hamlet in Pasadena. He added that he's been able to do things he never thought he could do since he has stabilized.

While he used to have "the energy and the ideas" to write songs during his manic phases, he could not complete the job because of a "lack of focus." He also strained some professional relationships during those times due to the ease with which he could become frustrated.

In the past eight years or so, he has built a recording studio for his band, The Open Feel, learned how to record, how to play bass as well as drums (one of his favorite drummers is the late John Bonham of Led Zeppelin), and become a fine songwriter with the focus that he once lacked.

All through that time, including his hospitalization at Loma Linda University Hospital in southern California, his girlfriend, Katie, who learned about the scourge of mental illness early on in life because of her mother's depression, has been a bulwark of support.

On the day I met Brayton and Katie, a slim blond woman, they were wearing matching T-shirts that read, "Don't Ever Waste Your Days Not Doing What You Dream To Do..."

I was reminded of the Rolling Stones' line from "Ruby Tuesday," "Catch your dreams before they slip away. Dying all the time, lose your dreams, and you will lose your mind."

Thankfully, Brayton has pursued his dreams and kept his mind as well as his optimism.

When I asked Brayton what advice he has for President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Brayton said that they should "take all the money you spend fighting the war on drugs and use it to fight addiction and mental illness."

He also mentioned that there should be better coordination of medical records between psychiatric wards and patients. At the time that he was hospitalized in 2004, the hospital staff, assuming he was lying, would not listen to him when he told them that he already had a therapist and that he was already on meds. As a result, he was put on a different regimen of medication that did not help him and could have endangered his health. This suggests a need for electronic records as well as greater trust between patients and hospital staff.

As I listened to Brayton discuss these topics, it struck me that until now no politician running for president, other than Newt Gingrich (whose mother was diagnosed with a mental disorder), has mentioned mental illness as an issue in the campaign. Perhaps, if more politicians knew of inspirational stories like that of Brayton they might realize that mental health is a legitimate concern that deserves a robust debate in a public forum.

They might also realize that the most people with bipolar disorder are decent citizens who have never harmed anyone.