The stigma that people with mental illness face is real, and it often stops us from seeking treatment. I have clinical anxiety and depression, so I've experienced some of the shame that often surrounds mental health discussions. Still, I know my experience is not nearly as stigmatized as those who have lesser-known mental illnesses. According to one study, employers are more likely to hire someone taking antidepressants than someone on anti-psychotic medication. The way we talk about and represent these conditions is important, and a recent viral Twitter thread about stock photos and bipolar disorder shows how people with the condition are represented in online media. It's a reminder of how problematic things can get when people misunderstand mental illness.
Twitter user @chrystran is calling out photographers and designers who make it seem like bipolar disorder is an inward battle between good and evil. They shared the thread on Dec. 20, and it quickly garnered more than 1,200 retweets and 5,700 likes. Basically, the thread goes through stock photos that are used to illustrate stories about bipolar disorder and points out how ridiculously misguided they are. It's important to acknowledge that bipolar disorder is a complex illness that manifests in different ways, and reducing it to just mood swings is both incorrect and unfair.
The brilliance of the thread is that it manages to be humorous while still pointing out how simplistic common representations of bipolar disorder are. It's important to note that some people may relate to these stock pictures — if you check Pinterest for tattoos related to bipolar disorder, you'll see images similar to the ones linked in the Twitter thread. For others, though, it's an oversimplification of a complicated disorder. A bipolar manic episode isn't simply being in a good mood, and it's often marked by extreme energy, irritability, and impulsive decisions. Using a picture of a smiling person to show mania is an oversimplification, if not an outright inaccuracy.
It'd be difficult for a stock photo to perfectly communicate the depths of any mental illness, but the good vs. evil contrast shown repeatedly in these pictures is harmful and spreads misinformation about what bipolar is like. Not everyone who has bipolar disorder has frequent manic episodes. According to Healthline, people with bipolar disorder will have different symptoms, and some people may feel mostly depressed. Even people who do have manic episodes aren't out of control, so the imagery is wrong on several different levels. As @chrystran says in one tweet, "if you're struggling with bipolar disorder, it seems like you better call a f*cking exorcist before you call a mental health professional."
The thread has generated interesting conversation. Many people have thanked @chrystran for speaking out and pointed out the irrationality behind some of the stock photo decisions. Other people have argued that stock photos don't ever do a good job of representing reality. Twitter user @AsstronomyClass said, "If yall could have a stock photo that was accurate, could it be put into a form that would make people that don’t struggle with it understand? When are stock photos ever really good? People eating salad are never THAT happy to be eating salad."
It's a fair point. Stock imagery isn't exactly known for its spot-on portrayal of real life, so I can understand why some people don't get the frustration. Still, bipolar disorder is widely misunderstood — one study found that more than half of doctors felt "not very prepared" or only "somewhat prepared" to diagnose the condition. When even medical professionals are getting it wrong, it's unsurprising that the general public may not understand the disorder. But representation matters, and these stock pictures may deepen the stigma already associated with bipolar disorder. It may seem silly to ask ourselves to hold stock photography to a higher standard, but the more accurate our depictions are, the more likely we are to erase stigma.