The storyline caught the audience by surprise: A tough female police officer – the love interest to the leading male – lost her job, boyfriend and mental stability when she stopped taking her medication for bipolar disorder. More important than the drama that unfolded on screen, though, is the impression it had on viewers at home. Canadian TV series Rookie Blue’s honest portrayal of a potentially devastating condition was inspiring and, for some, liberating.
There isn’t much redemption for bipolar characters in popular media. Hit television series like Homeland and NYPD Blue have touted bipolar disorder for dramatic flair, emphasizing the mania and ignoring the potential manageability of the disorder. In contrast, Rookie Blue takes a more nuanced approach.
“We didn’t want to do bipolar lightly or irresponsibly, and we didn’t want to do a cartoon version of the illness,” says Tassie Cameron, executive producer of Rookie Blue. “We wanted to do an interesting, surprising and mature portrait.”
Popular understanding of bipolar disorder is limited, at best. According to Dr. Kevin S. Jones, director and clinical psychologist at Burlington Psychological and Counselling Services in Burlington, Ont., bipolar disorder is a brain condition that causes drastic shifts in mood in two directions.
On one end of the spectrum, there’s a manic state in which everything a person experiences is amplified or exaggerated. It can manifest itself through feelings of limitless energy and can lead to high-risk behaviours.
On the depressive side, “the volume is down, so to speak,” which leads to low energy and can result in thoughts of self-harm and suicide, Jones explains. Despite the challenges, bipolar disorder can be manageable through a combination of medication and professional counselling.
For bipolar Rookie Blue fans, the Marlo Cruz character was a source of inspiration.
When 25-year-old Abby (not her real name) received her first diagnosis in 2008, she walked out the door of her psychiatrist’s office in Fortaleza, Brazil, and never went back. In 2011, she endured a psychological crisis that caused her to become suicidal. She was rediagnosed and, desperate to keep her disorder a secret, she accepted treatment and tried to get back to normal life.
“When I was diagnosed at 22, my doctor said, ‘People like you can lead a very comfortable life,’ and I just thought, ‘A comfortable life? There’s got to be more than that for people like me,’” she says.
Abby got the vindication she needed watching Rookie Blue.
“I’m very afraid to go after the things I want because I’m bipolar,” Abby says. “[The Marlo Cruz character] inspires me because she didn’t let her disorder get in the way of what she wanted. She knew there was a possibility that people might find out that she was bipolar when she became a cop, but she did it anyway.”
Abby connected via Twitter with Cruz’s real-life counterpart, actor Rachael Ancheril, to thank her for the inspiration.
Ancheril, whose determination in preparing for the role earned her the respect of fans and co-stars alike, says she was driven by a desire to honour the bipolar community.
“I felt like I owed it to people who had bipolar disorder to understand as much as I could about this character. I’d go to work and then I’d come home and read about bipolar disorder to study for the next day,” Ancheril says.
“[Ancheril] is a force of nature,” says co-star Ben Bass. “She has boundless energy, she works hard and she does her homework.”
Canadian Rookie Blue fan Erin (who wishes to remain anonymous), 25, struggles with the stigma caused by misconceptions around her mental illness. She says that Rookie Blue portrays bipolar disorder honestly and accurately.
“[Cruz] went off her medication because she wanted to feel something. That was very accurate. I don’t feel anything when I’m on my medication – it numbs me. You can either be sane through medication, and feel like you’re not living or you can be unstable by staying off your medication, and feel crazy,” she says.
When Erin went off her medication in 2013, she endured the physical turmoil of withdrawal as well as the rebounding of her worst psychological symptoms. Erin also faced the judgment of her mother, who told her she was “glad that you’re not on medication any more – medication is for lazy people.”
While Rookie Blue offers a realistic portrait of the disorder, the American Psychological Association says that the media fail to address the full extent of bipolar symptoms, the best treatment options and how these affect the lives of the diagnosed and their families.
Living in Malaysia, 19-year-old Nurul Nadhirah was without hope for years. Diagnosed by her psychiatrist in 2010, Nadhirah felt the need to hide her disorder to avoid judgment.
“There’s quite a stigma here when it comes to mental illness, so I used to hide it. I even moved to a new city to start over,” she says.
The lack of understanding kept her quiet about her condition. Nadhirah insists that Rookie Blue, the Marlo Cruz character and Rachael Ancheril helped defeat that silence.
In a blog post under the alias Alana Graham, Nadhirah says, “Watching Officer Cruz crash and burn got me re-evaluating my life, and because of her, I’ve finally found the courage to talk openly about being bipolar. For the first time in four years, I’m not living a lie.”