Bipolar disorder, also known as bipolarity or manic depression, was not classified as a mental illness until 1957. Before then, all types of mental disorders were lumped under vague terms like “neurotic” or “melancholic.” Although there have been many guesses as to what famous historical people were bipolar, those are just guesses. This article will stick with looking at celebrities that have actually been diagnosed as bipolar.
Perhaps the most influential comedian of his generation, Terrance Patrick Sean “Spike” Milligan was the main writer behind “The Goon Show”, a smash radio comedy starring Milligan, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine and Peter Sellars. This was the first successful entertainment series that relied on extremely absurd humor. It was the main influence on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Although lauded in his lifetime, Milligan was prone to crushing depressive swings after extremely productive manic phases. He confessed to trying to knife Peter Sellars during one of these bouts in his painfully honest book “Depression and How to Survive It” (Arrow Books; 1994), co-written with his therapist, Professor Anthony Clare.
Actress and novelist Carrie Fisher suffers from an extreme form of bipolar disorder which requires her to take lots of medication in order to keep on an even keel. Fisher is best known for portraying Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and as the murderous jilted bride in “The Blues Brothers” (1980.) She also wrote and starred in a one-woman play called “Wishful Drinking” based mostly on her life’s problems.
In an interview with Stephen Fry, Fisher described her manic phases as, “God, if you like is saving me parking places … I have messages from deep space … nothing is moving fast enough.” Like many manic depressives, Fisher tried to self-medicate her symptoms with drugs and alcohol, which wound up only making problems worse.
Described by beloved British television interviewer as “a national treasure,” Stephen Fry has become one of Britain’s most influential and admired comedians, writers and television hosts. Fry began having manic and depressive cycles as a teenager, which led him to commit petty theft and eventually go to juvenile prison. He later became a member of Footlights comedy troupe and was able to channel his flamboyant energy into writing and acting. Americans may best know Fry as Jeeves in the PBS series “Jeeves and Wooster.”
Fry also wrote and hosted an award-winning documentary about bipolar disorder, “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” (2006.) In it, he describes his symptoms, how he tried to commit suicide and contemplated going on medication. However, when asked if he could magically push a button to completely eliminate his bipolarity, he responds, “Not for all of the tea in China.”
“Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.” (2006.)
“Depression and How to Survive It.” Spike Milligan & Anthony Clare. Arrow; 1994.
USAToday. “Carrie Fisher Strikes Back at Mental Illness.” Adele Slaughter & Stephen A. Shoop, MD. May 30, 2002. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/spotlight/2002/05/29-fisher.htm