A trailer for a documentary film about bipolar disorder was released Tuesday on Chinese social media. Tentatively titled “Rollercoaster Riders,” the video coincides with World Bipolar Day and aims to raise awareness about the mood disorder as well as eliminate the social stigma surrounding it in China.
The documentary’s Beijing-based director, Liu Xinzi, said she initially prepared to shoot for two months. But as she learned more about how people live with bipolar disorder, and how the condition affects their relationships with family members, friends, and strangers, she grew determined to take the project further.
“At first, we planned to film five protagonists, but now we’ve got 42 participants — men and women of different ages and from different backgrounds,” Liu told Sixth Tone.
Liu began filming “Rollercoaster Riders” in 2019. Before that, she had little knowledge of bipolar disorder. “I had heard of it, but I had never even looked up the usual symptoms,” the 36-year-old said.
Two months of filming became two years, but Liu doesn’t mind even if the project drags on for a third year. “There’s a lot of change and uncertainty in these people’s lives,” she said. “Several short takes isn’t enough to tell the complete story.”
A still frame from the documentary “Rollercoaster Riders,” filmed in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2021. From 双相躁郁世界 on WeChat
World Bipolar Day falls each year on March 30, the birthday of Vincent van Gogh, who famously lived with mental illness. Experiencing bursts of creativity during his manic periods, the Dutch painter created some of the world’s most recognizable works of art. But during one dark bout of depression, he ended his life.
The initial symptoms of bipolar disorder are usually depression and anxiety, said Peng Daihui, director of mood disorders at Shanghai Mental Health Center, where only about 20% of people with bipolar disorder display mania as their first symptom. On average, it takes nearly 10 years before a person with dipolar disorder is accurately diagnosed.
“A lot of people come in only knowing that they’re depressed,” Peng told Sixth Tone. “But when they’re manic, they feel energetic, creative, and happy. This makes their work and studies efficient, and it’s a very different experience from depression.”
Peng added that 40% of the patients at Shanghai Mental Health Center come from cities where diagnosis rates of bipolar disorder are lower. “We’ve done a lot of academic exchange activities and teaching at the grassroots level, so medical personnel across China should have a general familiarity with bipolar disorder,” he said. “But there’s still a difference when it comes to whether they can recognize it in a clinical setting.”
Compared with other mood disorders, people who are bipolar and their families face greater stigma, Peng said, and may be unwilling to accept the reality of their condition.
“It has become fashionable for people to admit that they are anxious or depressed, but with bipolar disorder, when you’re manic, you can lose control and potentially endanger other people,” he said.
Every year on March 30, hospitals, professional associations, nonprofits, and online platforms hold livestream events and free clinics all over China to raise awareness of bipolar disorder. Sometimes, the campaign experiments with diverse artistic mediums such as musicals, cartoons, and movies, according to Peng.
“For example, the Hollywood films ‘Identity,’ ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ and ‘Black Swan’ show people with multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, and hallucinations,” Peng said. “They send the message that we shouldn’t discriminate against these people, who can be extraordinarily creative.”
The film crew during taping for “Rollercoaster Riders,” about Chinese people living with bipolar disorder. Courtesy of director Liu Xinzi
Liu, the director, says she wants to film how people with bipolar disorder cope with the condition, as well as how it’s viewed and handled by society. “People’s indifference to the suffering of others is basically a reflection of their own fear of facing pain,” she said.
In early March, a revamped Mandarin version of “Next to Normal,” a Broadway musical about a mother struggling with long-term bipolar disorder, premiered in Shanghai, hoping to find receptive and empathetic audiences in China. The show is currently touring in Beijing before proceeding to Guangzhou in April.
Yet one 24-year-old university student doesn’t dare to go see the musical, and it’s precisely because of her debilitating condition. “I want to see it when I’m feeling better. When I’m not well, I think I’d better avoid it. It might make me want to hurt myself,” the woman, surnamed Li, told Sixth Tone.
Li was diagnosed with depression at 15, then bipolar disorder four years later. She said she experiences “stable relapses” twice a year, each lasting from two to four months. Her family, teachers, and close friends all know about her condition, but most of the time she has to face her mood swings on her own.
Now studying medical anthropology, Li is learning how to cultivate more comfortable relationships between her and her loved ones. “The disease causes me to be more aware of my physical limitations, and to cherish love from others,” she said.
Apart from the wide appeal of films and musicals, China’s advocates have found other ways to educate people about bipolar disorder and enhance the public’s understanding of mental illness.
Liu Yuanqing, who has bipolar disorder, celebrates her birthday with colleagues, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Yuanqing
In 2016, Liu Yuanqing — no relation to Liu Xinzi — established an official account on social app WeChat called “Bipolar World” to record her thoughts and experiences. Today, it has over 40,000 subscribers and has shared nearly 1,300 stories from people with mood disorders as well as mental health professionals.
Before Liu Yuanqing was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016 at the age of 26, she had never even heard of the condition. “Only depression was familiar to me,” Liu told Sixth Tone. Looking back, she thinks she was probably showing symptoms of bipolar disorder nine years before she was properly diagnosed. “But I didn’t know anything about it, and there was nowhere I could turn for help,” she said.
Through her WeChat account, Liu Yuanqing hopes to make “bipolar disorder” a less esoteric term in China, connect people who live with the condition, and reduce discrimination.
“Though meaningful, this aim is also extremely difficult to realize, as the public’s understanding is so limited,” she said. “Yet a kind, loving social environment is so essential to people with the condition.”
In China, the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center can be reached for free at 800-810-1117 or 010-82951332. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached for free at 1-800-273-8255. A fuller list of prevention services by country can be found here.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Corbis Images/People Visual)