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Mental Illness – Disability and Ableism

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Texas chapter.

Bipolar disorder (previously known as manic depression) is a mental illness that causes severe mood swings and changes in sleep, energy, thoughts, and behavior. Treatments for this illness include antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and psychotherapy; however, the medications have side effects which can cause detrimental psychological and physiological impacts. There is still a lot to learn so that researchers and the pharmaceutical industry can make drugs with less severe side effects that are equally as or even more effective. Still, progress is hindered by a lack of research and government funding. Such deficits could also influence the tremendous stigma associated with bipolar disorder and mental health in general. The view on bipolar disorder is heavily influenced by the lack of research on the female body, stigma through media, and the medical and social model of disability. 

The lack of research and funding impacts women the most because of the historical focus on studying and treating the male body and the lack of research on gender differences in clinical presentation and treatment. For example, a woman with bipolar disorder is more likely to get misdiagnosed than a man (Dell’Osso et al., 2021). Moreover, there are currently no blood or lab tests to diagnose a mental illness, so physicians rely on the trial and error approach: the process of experimenting with different medications and seeing which one is the most beneficial. For example, many patients do not respond positively to antidepressants since the prescribed medications for patients have been authorized through a physician’s educated guess. This can lead to adverse effects and dangerous psychological conditions threatening one’s emotional and behavioral function. People with mental illnesses can work productively in competitive environments yet face disproportionately high unemployment rates (Burke-Miller et al., 2006). However, disabled people face ableism on a daily basis. Ableism is the attitudes and behaviors supporting the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to people without disabilities. For example, one of my family members was shamed and labeled as “dramatic” for having bipolar disorder. Seeing the lack of research on the female body in clinical presentation and treatment and the mistreatment of my family member due to her disability shows me that society views women with bipolar disorder as unwanted and lazy. Overall, there is a need to improve the treatment of both men and women diagnosed with bipolar disorder while also helping to reduce the societal stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and mental health. 

The stigma surrounding mental illness is not only amplified through the lack of scientific research but also through the media. For example, the 2016 movie Split by Manoj Nelliyattu “M. Night” Shyamalan displays a false representation of people with dissociative identity disorder (DID). DID is stigmatized through Split as it shows the main character, Kevin, kidnapping and harming others. A person with DID is very likely to hurt themselves than others (Chefetz et al., 2000). Split labels individuals with DID as dangerous and harmful to society which can negatively affect the perception of people with DID. Moreover, when I watched Split in my AP Psychology course during my junior year of high school, my friend sitting next to me whispered in my ear and said, “Is your ‘family member’ scary like this?” She continued to make fearful and insensitive comments about my family member, refused to let me carpool with her after school, did not sit next to me in class the following day, and spread hurtful rumors about my family. Dissociative identity disorder and bipolar disorder are two different illnesses; hence, we see that media strongly influences society’s perception of mental illness, causing people to label all mental illnesses as identical and dangerous. 

On the other hand, social media can be used to break the negative stigma toward mental illnesses. For example, the Instagram page breakingtaboo educates the public on different mental illnesses, self-care, and taking care of your mental health. As quoted by Cindy Li, we are all just temporarily abled. The breakingtaboo instragram page indirectly expresses this quote through their educational infographics that explain, for example, that symptoms of anxiety and burnout can affect anyone at any time. This resource also displays a fair balance of the medical and social models of psychiatric disability. 

The medical model of disability is usually defined by a member of the medical community or has some physical diagnosis or measurement included in it and tends to focus on the individual. The social model of disability looks at what specifically in our environment causes induces the negative aspects of a disability experience and focuses on how we function within a social environment. In regards to my family member, the medical model of bipolar disorder focuses on the diagnosis she was given by her physician and the different medications she was given as a result of her diagnosis. The social model of bipolar disorder expresses how my family member has specific environmental triggers that influence her mood changes. The diagnostic approach seems to be looked at more positively when it comes to mental illnesses; however, the societal approach needs to be looked at equally with the medical approach since the environment can significantly impact everyone’s day-to-day lives. 

The view on bipolar disorder and mental illnesses, in general, are significantly impacted by the lack of scientific, positive and negative media, and the importance of viewing both the medical and social model of disability. Able-bodied individuals in society do not understand how privileged they are while I watched my family member be labeled as “broken” (Moreno 2019). Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act, numerous people are turned away from a job and treated unequally. Hence, society must become more aware of ableism and address this issue. 


Burke-Miller, J. K., Cook, J. A., Grey, D. D., Razzano, L. A., Blyler, C. R., Leff, H. S., Gold, P. B., Goldberg, R. W., Mueser, K. T., Cook, W. L., Hoppe, S. K., Stewart, M., Blankertz, L., Dudek, K., Taylor, A. L., & Carey, M. A. (2006). Demographic Characteristics and Employment Among People with Severe Mental Illness in a Multisite Study. Community Mental Health Journal42(2), 143–159. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-005-9017-4

Chefetz, R. A. (2000). Disorder in the Therapist’s View of the Self: Working with the Person with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Psychoanalytic Inquiry20(2), 305–329. https://doi.org/10.1080/07351692009348890

Dell’Osso, B., Cafaro, R., & Ketter, T. A. (2021). Has Bipolar Disorder become a predominantly female gender related condition? Analysis of recently published large sample studies. International Journal of Bipolar Disorders9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40345-020-00207-z

Dudek, K., Taylor, A. L., & Carey, M. A. (2006). Demographic Characteristics and Employment Among People with Severe Mental Illness in a Multisite Study. Community Mental Health Journal42(2), 143–159. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-005-9017-4

Mulvany, J. (2000). Disability, impairment or illness? The relevance of the social model of disability to the study of mental disorder. Sociology of Health and Illness22(5), 582–601. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.00221

21 Ways Able-bodied Privilege Looks. (n.d.). Thebodyisnotanapology.com. https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/21-ways-able-bodied-privilege-looks/

Radhika is a senior at UT Austin majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Educational Psychology. She is currently pursuing a career in research and medicine. She enjoys reading, swimming, and playing the guitar.