Our Bipolar Society


As a professional in the field of mental health, I realized, recently, that society as a whole is often vulnerable to the same ailments that plague individuals.  After many years of economic growth and prosperity, we now find ourselves in a recession, if not an outright economic depression.  This economic cycle is similar to an individual emotional cycle in that it has many of the characteristics of Bipolar Disorder.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (the DSM IV), considered the Bible of mental health disorders, presents the criteria for a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder (formerly referred to as Manic-Depressive Disorder).  A person with this disorder will swing emotionally from high or manic states to low/depressive states.  The high, or Hypo-manic Episode, is characterized by an inflated sense of self esteem or grandiosity.  In this state, an expansive or unwarranted optimism, grandiosity and poor judgment will often lead to imprudent involvement in pleasurable activities such as buying sprees, reckless driving, poorly considered business investments and uncharacteristic sexual behavior. All of these behaviors occur despite the likelihood that the consequences of these behaviors will be painful. This phase is also characterized by distractibility. With his attention so easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli the individual is incapable of maintaining focus and perspective.



When our society was going through a Hypo-manic stage, it exhibited distorted, delusional growth in the real estate market.  As homes appeared to appreciate in value, individuals were encouraged to seek higher mortgages. The mortgages were then bundled as the banks attempted to get greater leverage and these bundles which now contained a variety of mortgages of different qualities were then sold to other banks, brokerage houses and investment firms. Throughout these machinations, there occurred a total loss of perspective regarding the true value of these properties.  


The stock market, also caught up in this manic state, grossly over inflated the value of stocks which had minimal collateral value. As the prices of these stocks rose without any basis in reality, more and more people, caught up in the manic frenzy and fearful of being left out, joined the stampede and further escalated the already inflated market. Although there were some economists who cautioned against the unrealistic expansion, most projections were for continued and unending growth. The United States was certainly not the only country involved in this type of delusional thinking.  Many other governments became equally involved as we borrowed money from them and they ended up owning poorly collateralized properties in the United States. The manic aspect of this process forced the economy, pretty much worldwide, to accelerate faster and faster.


This reminds me of a game called “Whip” played by children at a skating rink. The children form a line, holding hands. The child at the head of the line begins to turn and the others must follow but this requires the skaters further away from the center (the line becomes like the radius of a circle) to have to move faster to keep the line intact. At some point the acceleration is so great that the skaters furthest from the center cannot keep up. Eventually the line breaks. This truly represents what has happened to our economy today.  The individuals and institutions at the end of the line are left to carry the burden.  Since they are so far extended, they begin to collapse. Then the whole line falls apart because the burden is too great.  This brings the Hypo-manic state to an end and leads to the beginning of the Depressive state.


Isn’t this an apt description of what has happened to our society over the last few years? We regressed and became little children who were blinded by hype and peer pressure to believe that we could endlessly invest, expand and buy with little or no consideration of reality. This could surely be described as “Buy Polar”. Like little children, we became followers of our leaders or authorities who relinquished governmental controls while assuring us that everything was fine. We followed based on trust and our own blindness. As in manic episodes, we truly lost perspective. We were incapable of seeing that we were dealing with a helium inflated balloon which soared higher and higher.


As it happens in all manic states, the bubble had to burst and now we have entered the depressive episode described in the DSM IV as one in which the person is depressed, sad, hopeless, and discouraged or “down in the dumps”. Loss of interest or pleasure is nearly always present.  Individuals may report feeling less interested in hobbies and, generally, not feeling enjoyment in things that they formerly found pleasurable.  The depressed economy also limits the capacity to find pleasure in engaging in hobbies, sports, travel, entertaining, etc.


As the Depressive cycle continues, so does the tendency to engage in unrealistic negative evaluation of one’s self worth. One becomes preoccupied with self-recrimination over poor judgment and past failures. There is a tendency to ruminate and engage in self abuse over poor financial choices.  Many people report impaired ability to think, concentrate or make decisions.  The feelings of hopelessness and despair have replaced the feelings of grandiosity and omnipotence of the manic state.


Society, as I have said previously, often emulates the pattern of the individual.  At the heart of much of this emotional turmoil, whether in the individual or the society as a whole, we find competitiveness. Children, as well as societies, are very much conditioned to equate self worth with achievement. Expressions like “smarter than”, “stronger than”, and “wealthier than” pervade the value system of nations as well as young children.  We are taught to  compare ourselves to others constantly. We feel great when we get the best grades or have the most money. Our self image and self worth, individually and as a society, are tied to besting the competition. We are great if we succeed and a failure if we don’t.



Now that we see the process, how do we end the cycle?



The treatment of an individual with Bipolar disorder requires that they be helped to look inside instead of out in order to reduce competitiveness with the intent of gaining perspective. During the treatment, patients are encouraged to look at what is really important in their lives … what really matters.  The goal is to develop a different set of values.  By reducing the competitiveness, they can begin to look at themselves and develop a more realistic assessment of their capabilities.  In setting goals that are internally driven, they can better balance their energies.  They ask themselves important value-based questions: “How much time will I spend earning money?” “How much time will I have for my family?” “How can I fit in time for my interests and hobbies?” Once they are able to recognize what they value, they will feel more comfortable as they budget their time and finances. Looking inward, they will be in a better position to explore options.  By reflecting on their past mistakes, they can learn and make changes instead of indulging in self-flagellation.





Bipolar Disorder in individuals is often treated with medications which, although not curing the patient, serve to control and stabilize the mood swings.  As yet, there is no known medication which will stabilize Societal Bi-Polar Disorder.  I feel this can only be accomplished through a wise selection of governmental leaders who are able to regulate and limit the financial directions and decisions taken by members of the financial community.


Without such regulation, in fact with the de-regulation by recent administrations, our society went off on an uncontrolled manic tear the consequences of which are now becoming all too painfully apparent. Prudent, reality-based leadership will, I hope, supply the bitter tasting medication needed to stabilize our society.