Behind bipolar disorder: Why Amanda Bynes' story is no joke

Amanda Bynes Crashes at L.A. Shopping Mall
Amanda Bynes Crashes at L.A. Shopping Mall

By DR. KAREN LATIMER (AOL Health Expert)

Amanda Bynes, the adorable little girl from "All That" and "The Amanda Show" is now, at only 28 years old, homeless.

On Thursday, several media outlets released a picture of this clearly troubled young woman sleeping on a couch at a mall in Los Angeles. This, I suppose, is newsworthy to many. To me, this is tragic.

Bynes, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was recently released from a psychiatric facility. Despite the best efforts of her parents and friends to continue her treatment, she has been seen wandering the streets looking for a place to stay and tweeting accusations, largely thought to be untrue, about those who love her most. Many media outlets are covering the story, and the dark side of human nature makes us take an unkind interest when the mighty fall. Who after all in our society, is mightier than those who achieve fame?

I implore you, rather than look at this as yet another Hollywood sideshow fueled by the misfortune of others, take it as an opportunity to get informed about bipolar disorder. Mental illness is very real, its treatment is often extremely difficult and we are almost all at risk.

I often hear people throwing around the term "Bipolar" as if it were a personality trait like funny, mean or serious. It is a disease, and it needs to be respected as a disease. Imagine a celebrity, like Amanda Bynes, who has breast cancer. Now imagine, she is unwittingly caught on camera in an unflattering picture with a bald head exposed. Almost everyone with a conscious would find the publication of the photo distasteful.

Why is mental illness viewed so differently than diseases affecting other organ systems?

When my children see someone who looks or acts differently, I explain the condition to them in the simplest of terms. When someone's heart is sick, his or her brain works fine. It helps the person manage her illness, seek treatment and take her medicine. When someone's brain is sick, the sickness itself often prevents her from acknowledging her disease and taking the appropriate steps to control it. The brain gets sick just like the liver, the kidneys or the heart. The world is just much less sympathetic to a sick brain.

If mental illness were more widely understood, a photo of Amanda Bynes sleeping on a couch would be no more entertaining than a picture of an actor with asthma having an attack.

What you should know about bipolar disorder:

1. Bipolar is NOT another way to describe someone who is simply emotional. It is a psychiatric disorder characterized by extremes of moods. Patients go through periods of intense happiness with increased energy and other periods of depression and fatigue. In between, people with bipolar disorder can feel normal.

2. Bipolar disorder used to be known as manic depression. Symptoms of the manic phase are feelings of extreme hopefulness, excited speech, impulsivity and high sex drive. Symptoms of the depressive phase are irritability, sadness, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, fatigue and changes in appetite.

3. Men and women are equally likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Women spend more time in the depressive phase and often cycle through the extremes more quickly. The first episode in men tends to be a manic episode. The first episode in women is usually a depressive episode.

4. The average age of diagnosis is in the early 20s.

5. People with a first degree relative with bipolar disorder or other psychiatric disorders are at greater risk of having bipolar, but a direct genetic link has not been found.

Bipolar disorder affects about 2 million people in the U.S. To learn more, please visit this site. If you suspect psychiatric illness in yourself or a loved one, seek help immediately. If you were having chest pain, you would not wait. Illnesses of the mind are no less serious and they are, despite the tone expressed in the photos circulating, no laughing matter.