Fox News radio personality Tom Sullivan recently referred to bipolar disorder as “the latest fad.” He claimed the diagnosis was invented by the mental health profession to exploit the masses for profit, and stated his belief that bipolar disorder was neither a disease nor a disability. Sullivan was responding to a caller on his talk show who had been discussing her 13-year battle with bipolar disorder and describing how it had turned her life upside down and made it impossible to maintain her career. From his employer’s standpoint, Sullivan’s refusal to accept bipolar as a disability was the most significant part of his diatribe. In its roll of daily headlines, the Fox News Radio website sought to lure readers into downloading Sullivan’s podcast by framing the issue thusly: “Bipolar Woman Says She DESERVES Disability Benefits. Tom Tells Her She’s Wrong!” When speaking to his caller, Sullivan seemed most interested in convincing her she’d been scammed by the mental health profession. But when the spinmeisters at Fox got hold of the issue, suddenly the 30-year-old woman at the center of this (entirely manufactured) controversy was transformed into some sort of deadbeat looking for a way to get paid for not working. Pushing this angle to the hilt, the Fox News Radio blurb about Sullivan’s show was linked to a story on the politically conservative site CNS News that proclaimed, “1 in 3 on Disability Have Mental Health Disorder; 42.9 % in D.C.” We won’t speculate as to why the writer of that particular headline felt it necessary to include the numbers from Washington, D.C. But the initial percentage listed is incorrect. Approximately 28 percent of those on Social Security disability (SSDI) have been diagnosed with serious mental health problems, and only about 8 percent on private disability programs suffer from this type of condition. What is happening here seems clear. To promote a political agenda, people with mental health disorders are being slandered and turned into scapegoats. This is being done to prove that all government spending is wasteful and that government programs are stealing taxpayer money. The mental health profession is also being thrown under the bus, with the implication being that psychiatrists are drug pushers who relish the opportunity to act like pigs at the trough when government funds are available. But singling out bipolar disorder to make a point about psychiatric over-diagnosis is odd. First discussed in medical literature all the way back in 1854, this illness isn’t exactly a Johnny-come-lately on the mental health scene. And unlike some of the more subtle or hard-to-spot mental health conditions, bipolar causes such exaggerated mood swings that even casual bystanders usually know something is wrong. Over 5.7 million Americans are known to suffer from bipolar disorder, and it is a strange viewpoint indeed to suggest they’re all either faking it to get on disability or have been brainwashed by Machiavellian shrinks seeking to milk the government money cow. It is undoubtedly true that some people on disability are lying about the severity of their injuries or illnesses. But this is almost assuredly far less common that those with ideological axes to grind would like to think. The application process for government disability is a complicated, bureaucratically overburdened affair that puts prospective benefit recipients through the wringer. In the end, if their applications are approved, they will be awarded a monthly stipend that averages $1,148 per individual and about twice that for a family of three. Without other sources of income, people on disability will be living in poverty, most likely forever. The program is costly to the taxpayers because almost 9 million American workers have been classified as disabled. But the standards to reach that point are so tough that only about 34 percent who apply for benefits are approved. Exact figures aren’t available, but it is fair to estimate that no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of all bipolar sufferers will ever spend time on disability. And those who do will almost invariably have long job histories that precede their decision to apply for government benefits. When most people go on disability, they do so only as a last resort, and that includes people who are forced to spend a lifetime trying to scale the walls of mental illness that hold them captive.
Equal Opportunity Illness
Applying for disability is not a common practice among bipolar sufferers. But the same cannot be said for suicide. Studies show that 25 percent to 50 percent of all bipolar victims will attempt suicide at some point in their lives—a peculiar behavior if the condition they have been diagnosed with doesn’t really exist. It is a shame when the real suffering of real people is exploited by ideologues out to score points against their political enemies, either real or imagined. And it is entirely senseless because bipolar disorder has been diagnosed in men and women of all ages, creeds, races, religions, ideological dispositions and political affiliations. The last thing any of these individuals needs is to hear public figures—even minor ones—questioning their sincerity—or their intelligence—and trying to make them feel guilty or foolish because of their mental health diagnosis. Hula hoops, disco music, streaking, Cabbage Patch kids and flash mobs were fads. But bipolar disorder is a real medical condition with life-altering consequences, and it will be still be around long after Sullivan’s radio show has been canceled and relegated to the dustbin of never-visited online archives.