Mental Health Awareness, Sensitivity, and Bipolar Disorder
In the March 5 issue of “The Torch,” the story on the Ayele brothers, Beluele and Yonotan, involved a quote from the twins’ brother, Michael Ayele, explaining their symptoms, delusions, and seemingly strange behaviors (“talking to himself, making several references about God, Satan, etc. … He was delusional and paranoid for a long time before the incident”). The story then concluded by saying that since arrest, Beluele had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder.
I would like to make two points about this statement.
First of all, this was a very problematic casual mention of a stigma-charged term in media, which changes connotations to that term by the public, which affects all who identify with Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a label for certain behaviors and experiences, and it carries a lot of problematic and harmful stigma, stereotypes, and prejudices. Some people find comfort in having a word to describe their experience, but others find it dehumanizing and reductive. These are all valid experiences (in fact, it’s even a little problematic for me to be writing this with what could be called “sane privilege”–there is no label assigned to me that enables someone to be culturally justified in dismissing me as “crazy”).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is a big book of mental disorders, one of which is Bipolar disorder, that are recognized by a panel of professionals. All of the labels and diagnoses are based entirely on observed and reported behavior. The experiences the labels describe are real, but there is no known internal brain measurement basis for the label “bipolar,” despite theories of “chemical imbalances” (which is comparable to saying headache drugs work because there is an imbalance in the brain of the chemical that the drugs effect).
The label has three different variations: Bipolar 1 (one or more episode of mania), Bipolar 2 (no mania, but “hypomania” – almost mania – and major depression), and Bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified). The label “bipolar” exists as a spectrum, meaning not everyone with this label is identical. The label can also occur with a dual-diagnosis, in tandem with another label.
So, we can attach this label of bipolar disorder to Beluele. There are a list of behaviors he must exhibit, and we must see the “presence of five of nine diagnostic symptoms with a minimum duration of two weeks and a change from previous functioning.” The problem is the quickness with which his behavior, and his violent behaviors against women, are connected to that label.
I am not talking about his specific case, I am talking about the framing around mental health and Bipolar disorder in the quote and article. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and also the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.6 percent of the US adult population are diagnosed with some type of Bipolar disorder, which means we can estimate that about 40 students at Wittenberg have been assigned (and perhaps identify with) that label.
Jumping from a list of symptoms that were precursors to violence and aggression to this diagnosis can easily come across as a terrifying misrepresentation of what it means.
Secondly, if Beluele’s friends knew that his experience was changing so dramatically, they should have sought help. While the health centers offers free and professional counseling, our services are relatively limited. Schools with graduate programs in counseling have entire counseling centers where graduate students and professionals work together to offer unique services and programs. Treatments are complex and individual, and mental health needs are real. Ignoring them, especially in a culture of patriarchy and campus rape-culture where symptoms can manifest as tragically and horrifying as they did in this case, is dangerous.
Try to find someone on campus you can talk to about your mental and emotional health, and reach out to friends or professors you trust if you have concerns. There is a strong stigma against addressing these needs (as author and philosopher Alain de Botton once put it, we are so proud of going to the gym and so ashamed of going to the therapist), perpetuated by media representation such as in the Ayele brothers’ story. But we can address this by demanding that the ability to talk about experience be brought back to the forefront.