Why the Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder on “Empire” is So Important
The finale of FOX’s hit new show, Empire, aired this week and it was an ending fitting of such an explosive premiere season. If you are planning to watch the show and would rather avoid spoilers, I encourage you to navigate away from this article before I go any further.
The series follows a fractured (but, somehow, very connected and loving) family comprised of a rapper turned music mogul, his incredibly outspoken and talented ex-wife and their three sons, all of whom were very young when their mother began her 17-year stint in prison for selling drugs to fund the creation of their record label.
The youngest son, Hakeem, was just a baby when everything went wrong and didn’t remember his mother and clearly has some anger surrounding this issue. The middle son, Jamal, struggles to deal with being homosexual in the African-American community. The oldest son, Andre, for a long time, seems to be the only one who has it together. He has a committed wife, impressive education and good command over his role at the family business – and then we gradually begin to realize that things are not as easy as they seem.
His wife regularly monitors whether he is taking his medication and often encourages him to reevaluate his dosage. She tries to stop him from mixing alcohol with his prescriptions in order to avoid serious side effects but things get so stressful within his family and their Empire label that he copes by having a few drinks.
Ultimately, after ignoring medical advice and throwing away his medication, Andre has a major episode and he can no longer conceal his struggles from viewers or his unsuspecting family. Andre has bipolar disorder.
It’s a huge, devastating moment in the series. Andre, who watches his brothers creating music with their parents, feels as though he has no talent and doesn’t belong with his family. With such a strong mother and father, and the bold moves of his siblings, it’s clear that Andre’s confidence begins to wane. He grows paranoid, angry and distant and, sadly, must be contained in a room at the company’s headquarters until he is sedated and taken away on a stretcher.
When the family convene to discuss his treatment options, his mother refuses to accept the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and initially tries to dismiss it as “white people’s problems.” Andre’s father threatens the doctor with physical violence and declares that his son does NOT have mental health issues. It’s so clear that both parents care about their child’s well-being but they are misinformed regarding the truth about bipolar disorder.
It’s so important that the producers of Empire took on this topic because it needs to be addressed. There are cultural barriers for some people who live with mental health concerns. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that many African-Americans feel that disorders such as depression are a sign of weakness and are within the control of the sufferer. Additionally, they often have limited access to resources due to socioeconomic factors and, with only 1.5% of the members in the American Psychological Association being African-American, the population is greatly underrepresented within the field.
While the next steps for solving this problem are less clear, it is obvious that we need to continue this dialogue to shed light on an important issue. Television shows are entertaining but they can also use their reach to provide information to viewers. It will be interesting to see how Andre’s recovery continues when the second season begins.
Croteau, J. (2015). Why the Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder on “Empire” is So Important. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/celebrity/2015/03/why-the-portrayal-of-bipolar-disorder-on-empire-is-so-important/