So Charlie Sheen’s Bipolar, Eh?

The media's diagnosis psychosis and how they get it wrong

The New York Times. Time magazine. The Sydney Morning Herald. CNN. ABC News. These are just a few of the media outlets that have recently theorized, uncritically, that Charlie Sheen may have bipolar disorder. It’s odd. How do the journalists know?

As far as we know, no treating doctor has ever diagnosed Sheen with bipolar disorder. Sheen has never said he has bipolar disorder. He has never been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility (whether for “exhaustion” or anything else). His wives and ex-wives and girlfriends and porn stars have never invoked mental illness as a reason for his behavior. (On the contrary, they’ve pretty much just called him a loser.) Yet the assertion is now everywhere you look. Sheen has been doing stupid, spoiled-child things for years now. Like a well-loved but mischievous altar boy (or Marmaduke), he has been repeatedly forgiven. His TV show makes a lot of money for a lot of people, and it’s important to separate the art (ahem) from the artist.

But his recent behavior finally served as the Gladwellian tipping point. Sheen turned so unpleasant, so destructive and so nasty that he lost his job and alienated half the globe. He became a laughingstock and object of derision. And that’s when the media—from England to Edmonton—went with the theory of mental illness: How could he be such an arrogant, egomaniac otherwise?

Having made a bad name for addicts for many years now, Sheen’s case now makes a bad name for bipolar people by associating us with a guy who is, quite possibly, the biggest schmuck in show business.

Last week, Inquirer TV columnist Jonathan Storm, under the headline “Charlie Sheen needs help, not platforms to encourage his disease,” wrote: “I like a celebrity meltdown as much as the next guy, but the saga of Charlie Sheen is getting sad, especially for those who have any experience with bipolar disorder, or manic depression.”

I was hoping to read something substantial to back up this connection between Sheen and the disorder. Instead, Storm wrote: “I’m no doctor and have never played one on TV, and my arm-chair diagnosis may be wrong, but …”

I’ve been an editor for many years, and I have two concerns with that sentence. One is that “armchair” doesn’t need to be hyphenated. The other is that “I may be wrong, but … ” just doesn’t work well as a dependent clause in journalism, even in the increasingly gloppy context of 21st-century journalism.

Storm goes on to say that his point—that Sheen needs help—is more important than specifics: “[Sheen’s symptoms] may be caused by addiction or some other brain malfunction and not bipolar disorder. It doesn’t matter.”

Yet it matters a great deal. Between the headline and the conclusion, the column is about bipolar disorder. To invoke the illness in the absence of facts is damaging.

Not to Sheen, of course. He damaged his rep without Storm’s help for most of his adult life. But it’s damaging to those of us who fight every day to educate people, to retool their expectations, to battle against the stigma that mental illness imposes. People who deal with mania are assumed by many to be unpredictable people with checkered lives, whose best hope is a degraded hardscrabble survival and then an early death.

Seriously. I have heard these things.

Storm has apparently drunk this particular Kool-Aid, as his final paragraph describes a colleague with bipolar disorder. “With medication,” Storm writes, “he went years and years living a normal, if not quite so exciting, life, until the disease eventually got the best of him. His behavior became grandiose, erratic and inappropriate and undermined not just his career, but his health. He died alone.”

Wow. Pretty devastating stuff. If I had just been diagnosed, I would read that and crumble. Even now, I read it with discomfort. Is that person representing me? I am living a normal and exciting life. But will I get sick again? Will I die alone? What about my dog? Won’t she be there, begging for treats?

Lao-tzu, in The Way of Lao-tzu, writes: “To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.” Lao-tzu didn’t say which disease. But I hope it wasn’t bipolar.