‘Empire’ Shines a Light on Mental Health—Too Bad It Gets It Wrong
On Wednesday night, more than 16 million viewers tuned in as the first season of Empire, Fox’s runaway hit drama, came to an end. Over the past 12 weeks, it managed to do the near impossible: gain millions of viewers each week. The show caters to a hungry demographic—people of color who want to see themselves on TV—and it isn’t afraid to push the limits. Empire explored issues of race, sexuality, and mental illness in the African American community, wrapping it all in a banging soundtrack and a huge dollop of must-see drama.
The show’s willingness to address such serious topics initially attracted Bassey Ikpi, a Maryland-based writer and mental health advocate. However, what Ikpi saw on Empire this season leads her to believe the hip-hop–centered soap opera is stigmatizing people living with mental health issues.
Like Andre Lyon, one of Empire’s main characters, Ikpi lives with bipolar disorder, an illness that affects about 5.5 million adults in the U.S and is categorized by “dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report “serious psychological distress” than their white peers, but cultural barriers—such as viewing mental illness as a weakness, not a disease—prevents many from getting treatment. This season, as Andre attempted to scheme his way to the top of his family’s company, his mental health rapidly declined, and no one seemed to care.
Although audiences learned that Andre took medication, his bipolar diagnosis wasn’t discussed until he became erratic and violent. In one scene, Andre is seen in an empty studio playing Russian roulette, and in another he sits in a running shower fully clothed. After he attempts to attack his brothers in an elevator, he is forcibly carted off to a psychiatric hospital, where he finally receives treatment.
For Ikpi, that’s a problem.
Andre’s character is “a composite of the worst moments of an illness,” she says. “That’s dangerous, because people who don’t know the nuances of mental illness will get validated saying he’s ‘just acting crazy.’ ” However, says Ikpi, “You don’t stop taking your meds in the morning and then by noon you’ve lost it,” as Andre does in one scene. “That’s not how it works.”
Ikpi has lived with bipolar disorder for more than a decade. Like many people, she was diagnosed in her twenties, and she has spent the last 10 years learning to manage the disease and educating others. After a friend’s 15-year-old daughter committed suicide in 2011, Ikpi founded The Siwe Project, an organization that promotes mental health awareness in the global black community. The nonprofit’s signature program, No Shame Day, aims to remove the negative stigma associated with mental illness, a problem especially important to African Americans, who are less likely to seek treatment than their white counterparts.
Despite group’s such as hers that raise awareness about the need for mental health services in the black community, Ikpi fears Empire’s huge success will prevent more people from seeking the help they need.
The show’s portrayal of Andre’s bipolar disorder “encourages ostracism, and it discourages people from getting help,” she says. “If I were undiagnosed and saw the episode where [Andre] was slammed to the ground and sedated, I wouldn’t seek help.”
Ikpi thinks TV shows can play a powerful role in encouraging people to get help for untreated mental illnesses, but writers need to stay away from easy clichés.
“Bipolar disorder exists in a spectrum, but within that spectrum are symptoms that are noted and known and help people get diagnosed,” says Ikpi. “When writing or depicting an illness [for television] that is so misunderstood, it’s important to stick to an ‘outline’ of symptoms. You can exaggerate certain aspects for dramatic effect, but you can't just invent symptoms.”
Viewers need to be able to “feel empathy for the character instead of immediate fear or trepidation,” she says. She also believes the language used to describe individuals with mental illness needs to change.
“The way you discuss a thing conveys how you think about it, and how others think and feel and discuss it. Right now, people with mental illness are to be feared and killed. That's the conversation,” she says, pointing to the connection the media often makes between mass shooters and other violent behaviors and people living with mental health issues.
“We need to stop saying people are bipolar and are schizophrenic. They aren't these disorders. They have these disorders. I am Bassey Ikpi. I have an illness,” she reiterates. “If we’re able to disconnect the illness from the person, the illness can be treated and the person can be cared for.”
As for Andre Lyon, we’ll have to wait until season two to find out his fate. Let’s hope Empire’s writers manage to keep the drama while leaving the mental health stereotypes behind.