OK, I’ll admit it – I hate the Silver Linings Playbook

A few weeks ago, I went to see the film Silver Linings Playbook with a friend. I was looking forward to it, because I’d heard such good things about its treatment of bipolar. However, about ten minutes in I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and by the end I was horrified that anyone could consider it a helpful depiction of bipolar. Since then, I have seen the movie lauded over and over again for its depiction of bipolar and the way it “challenges stigma”, with even Stephen Fry declaring it “perhaps the best example of mainstream film and mental health I’ve seen”. Yet a small minority of bipolars seem to share my concerns, so I thought it was worth setting them out.

A detailed synopsis of the plot can be found here, which I recommend you read if you haven’t see the film or need a refresher before reading on.

As the synopsis shows, absolutely key to the plot is that Pat has ended up an inpatient because he beat his wife’s lover to a bloody pulp, and that he wishes to breach his Restraining Order (this being much of his initial motivation for entering the dance contest with Tiffany). OK, so here’s my problem: I don’t see a bipolar man “losing it” in this film. I see a domestically violent man who happens to be bipolar.

Now, I’m not for one minute trying to deny that some people with bipolar are sometimes violent as a result of their condition – especially when they are undiagnosed and untreated. I have done many things of which I am deeply ashamed when unwell, including some incidents of violence and destructiveness. But to attribute a person’s violent or controlling behaviour to their bipolar, there must be a correlation between mood state and the behaviour. In other words, if a person is violent and/or controlling when they are high, but not when they are euthymic (of normal mood), it’s fair enough to see the behaviour as symptomatic of the disorder. If, however, they continue to display any behaviour of this nature when they are euthymic, it’s indicative of an entrenched pattern of thinking and behaviour which will continue regardless of mood state.

There are, of course, more types of violence than simply physical assault. Programmes for domestic violence perpetrators try to get them to understand and admit that they make use of a range of power and control techniques in their relationships. Psychological violence can take many forms, but a common example that police and probation have to carefully monitor is the deliberate breaching of Court orders such as Restraining Orders, Injunctions and Exclusion Requirements. The perpetrator usually justifies the breach on the grounds that he loves his partner or knows she wants to see him; the actual message to the partner is that even the law cannot keep her safe. As those who work in the field will tell you, it’s a tactic which we know is positively associated with a risk of future physical assault of the perpetrator’s partner. Pat emerges from hospital full of plans for cheerfully breaching his Restraining Order – which prevents him going to his wife Nikki’s home of workplace or seeking to contact her, and from having contact with the victim – and this quickly borders on stalking-type behaviour. And his obsessive attempts to contact Nikki continue after he has started complying with his medication regimen, when appears to be generally calmer, and is able to commit to regular, serious dance practice with Tiffany. In other words, his worrying behaviour around the RO continues when he is otherwise well, and is therefore not dependent on his mood state.

So if Pat’s controlling and aggressive mindset doesn’t stem from being manic or depressed, where does it come from? Well, there is plenty of evidence that Pat’s behaviour is learned and intergenerational, rather than impulsive and linked to bipolar mood swings. He has clearly grown up in a violent home; his dad doesn’t hesitate to pitch in and punch Pat repeatedly in the face after Pat pushes his mother to the ground, and later we learn that Pat Sr is unable to join his son at the big football game as he is barred from the stadium due to his previous violence there.

If you went into a cinema to see Silver Linings Playbook with no knowledge at all of bipolar and how it affects those with the condition, what would you take away from the movie?

–       That bipolar meds aren’t particularly pleasant. No quibble there.

–       That some people judge you because you have a mental health condition and/or have been an inpatient. Again, no problems.

–       That anger, violence and bipolar are closely linked. This is seriously problematic. In fact, study after study has shown that once you control for the impact of substance misuse, those with serious mental illnesses (including bipolar) are no more likely to be violent than the general population.

–       That domestic violence (including “jealousy” violence towards other men) is something some with an illness like bipolar just can’t help. This something the vast majority of DV perpetrators I have worked with wanted to be true. It’s easier to cope with your own behaviour if you tell yourself and those around you that you have an illness or “anger management” problems. That means, hey, it’s not really you.

Are those the messages we really want people to internalise about bipolar?

So much for challenging stigma.



About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in Film and TV, Mental health and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to OK, I’ll admit it – I hate the Silver Linings Playbook

  1. I actually couldn’t bring myself to go to the cinema and see it because I felt it would
    be too close to home and I would hate it.
    Now I will be sure not to watch it but I really admire you for going!

  2. kjosie says:

    You make a really good point there! Though the way I see it – the reason Pat wasn’t sticking to the restraining order wasn’t because he was controlling or in any way intending to harm Nikki – but I do agree that it was problematic that the violence was explained by the bipolar when we don’t need links to be unneccessarily made between mental health and violence.
    What I did like about the film was that he was a person with bipolar who had a character and life outside of his condition. So many storylines that cover mental health seem to have the MH problem as the entirity of the character and storylines associated.

  3. Thanks for writing this: some excellent points about how his stalking behaviour continues after treatment begins, which I hadn’t picked up on. And of course, the familial violence.

  4. Caroline says:

    I’ve also decided not to go and see it – I have a close relative with BP and it would just be too close to home, and he has shown similar levels of violence 😦

  5. I so agree with this post. The domestic violence rooted in the family culture is not addressed at all, the way the father abuses the son is not addressed, the father’s obsessive behaviour is not addressed, the obsession with his ex-wife is left at the door of mental illness and not, as you say, where it should be put, filed under violence. I had so many issues with this film.

  6. LLA says:

    I have to disagree with you. There is no evidence in the film of Pat having a past of domestic violence prior to the incident of him walking in on his wife with another man in the shower. I believe they used this incident as a trauma or trigger that brought out his violent side. And I don’t think they link the violence to bipolar disorder. In fact, they go out of their way to draw a line (by having his father also have violent tendencies and by having Pat be the last one to become violent during the fight at the football game). Just my opinion, but there will never be a depiction of bipolar disorder that satisfies everyone because bipolar disorder is so incredible different in each and every one of us.

    • Dawn Graziani says:

      I know I am a lot later in this discussion but can’t agree with you more with your statement. My daughter is a teenager dealing with being Bipolar; coming from a family of bipolar on my ex husbands side. I was very ignorant of this disorder but no longer am; for sure. When I saw this I wanted my daughter to see it immediately and it helped her. The key points are in the small details (borders in personal relationships not really seen, the severe swings in mood and even the times when everything seems fantastic but overly so as well as the times of becoming obsessive, I could go on…..) and my daughters goes through almost every single part of this cycle depending on the day and moment. Those undiagnosed absolutely can become violent without being aware of it at all and, in my experience with many in my daily life, have hit that stage following a time when they become obsessed or not being able to handle everything being perfect, until medicated. My daughter is the same and the spurts are sudden. There is no domestic violence, simple pounding walls, pushing and screaming. She seems, as many I have known, to not even be there when doing these things but an entirely different person until coming out of that episode; also very accurately shown in this movie. I don’t believe there were any parts of this movie that linked domestic violence to bipolar, not in any way. I strongly recommend anyone see this movie; my daughter is 15 and she was not interested but after it ran some minutes, she was very interested and I think it really helped her to not feel alone as well as understand the people in her family that had waited to get medicated and had so many difficulties. Bipolar is very different, even half of these symptoms can be evident in someone with bipolar; the main thing is this was as close to accurate as I have ever seen. My family on my side never understood that bipolar was not just severe depression but so much more. When some saw this they saw my daughter in it immediately and understood a lot more about her. My husband and I saw this (her step-father, also having had some difficulties understanding exactly what it was she has) and we were so excited to share it with her. He saw how closely it mirrored her behavior when she was first diagnosed and before treatment. Even now, at times, she goes off her meds and it is so difficult but after the movie I think it helped her to really see that she needs that. We are more then grateful for this movie; it needs to be seen by anyone suffering bipolar or knowing someone whom does.

  7. marvelist says:

    I think it’s the pinning of violent behaviour on any kind of mental illness that is problematic, and not that it is meant to be specific to bipolar disorder.

    • Well, I would agree with you, it wasn’t for so very many people stating on Twitter, FB – including Mind, Stephen Fry and the International Bipolar Foundation – that this is a depiction of bipolar. “Such a great bipolar character!” etc. People who know little about mental health are not being given the impression that what they see is about “mental health”, they are picking up impressions specifically of bipolar.

  8. Steve Gray says:

    In the film when the violence occurs he has not been diagnosed as bi-polar at that stage. it is only after the violence he is diagnosed and placed on meds.

  9. Cinesnatch says:

    Thank you for the link.

  10. tigtigs says:

    I loved it!!

  11. Michael says:

    I’ve seen this movie four times now…am bipolar, think its a great film. The filmmakers were not trying to be definitive here people…that were depicting a possibility–painting an impressionistic picture if you will. If you want to raise questions about “Silver Linings” ask about what happens after the final frame. How do Pat and Tiffany create a life together? It’s all very sweet in the movie, but I think its damn hard to imagine them having a fairytale life together.

    As for the violence…my father was violent (undiagnosed)…I am not by violent, but have been pushed and have been in very dicey domestic situations including an arrest that would make it seem that way.

    The film is believable and good…

  12. ognik says:

    I have to agree with Michael, I was diagnosed bipolar quite recently and I see a lot of my agressive behaviours from the past linked strongly to mood, I’ve never had smashed anybody into pulp…probably that’s why I was not diagnosed earlier… (I’m 39) and obsessing about his ex-wife (meds or no meds) is very real and believable to me, Pat sees being with his wife as being NORMAL, getting her back is getting back his life that he believed he had before the incident and diagnosis, I can relate…
    your experience of bipolar is different than one in the movie, mine is close enough to agree with Stephen Fry 🙂

    • Gah! You appear to have completely missed the point of my post 😦 It has nothing *whatsoever* to do with whether my experience of bipolar is similar to Pat’s. That’s utterly irrelevant to my argument, which is purely and simply about whether we find any evidence that Pat’s violence follows mood shifts, which would then tell us yep, it’s part of his bipolar. I’m not saying that bipolar can’t be aggressive – in fact, I argue the exact opposite, and even point out that I have been myself. But if someone’s violence isn’t directly connected with a mood shift, they are not “a person whose bipolar makes them violent” – they are just a violent person. Personality, not symptom. And, like I say, you don’t have to look very far to see where he might have learned that from.

      • ognik says:

        errrrrr, we just disagree, you decided that this behaviour he learned from his father, I’d rather say that his father had undiagnosed serious mental issues (bipolar as well maybe? def OCD, delusions…) and we know that with bipolar there is probably someone in close family who suffers of it as well (in my case def my father’s sister and probably my father as well)
        so was it learned or genetic?

      • Nope, where we disagree is that you’re coming at it from a point of view of opinion and identification. Which is fine – I do that all the time with media representations of BP (for example, in this blog post I wrote for the International Bipolar Foundation about Homeland and The Marriage Plot). But that’s *not* what I’m doing in this piece. Here I’m trying to be a sort of “detective’ looking for clues and evidence. So we are using different methods, an coming to different conclusions – measure one thing two ways, and that’s bound to happen.

  13. Agni says:

    I have not seen the film, I have only read the book. In the book, you can see the guy had a breakdown by his wife’s infidelity and his dad clearly has issues with controlling his temper and expressing his feelings. I have no idea what the film has done to Pat or the female character who is also in a bad place. I liked the book, and after the reviews that share your opinion, I am choosing not to see it. Homeland does a better job, since I have grown up with a bipolar mum…

  14. luaprelkniw says:

    I loved this column, Charlotte!

    I also loved some of the comments, especially those that disagreed with your views.

    I saw this film without knowing it was supposed to be a depiction of bipolar. Until the two main characters began discussing medications and mental hospital at the dinner table, I hadn’t identified with the portrayal at all. (Perhaps I’m just slow . . . )

    Were we expected to conclude that the father had bipolar too? I’m still confused. I didn’t find the female protagonist seemed symptomatic of anything in particular.

    Anyway, I did enjoy the film when I saw it, and even now (after having had my eyes opened to the details) I thought it was pretty entertaining overall. To be honest, I haven’t seen much in the way of mental illness in film that I felt was close to reality. With all its many faults, I feel Silver Linings Playbook was better than most.

  15. DesertFoxy says:

    Well dear, I liked the movie. At first glance the movie seems little disturbing but in fact it’s not (or at least for person like me who has never seen anybody with bipolar, the movie seems fine)…

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