General Hospital: ABC’s Take on Bipolar Disorder

Because Soap Operas like ABC’s General Hospital reach a wide audience and have hours of dedicated airtime, they have an opportunity to raise cultural, social, and medical awareness in ways other television formats can’t even attempt. Capitalizing on this, General Hospital has a history of tackling real problems like breast cancer, HIV and drug addiction, running these stories side-by-side with more unrealistic plots.

Admittedly, when soap operas like General Hospital try to tackle serious issues, they often look foolish. But sometimes, they get it right. And General Hospital’s ongoing exploration of a chemical imbalance known as Bipolar Disorder is one example of how to address tough topics in meaningful ways.

At the center of General Hospital’s decade-long story of mental illness, is the charismatic crime boss, Sonny Corinthos, played to perfection by actor Maurice Benard. Since Sonny’s introduction on the show in 1993, the character has frequently suffered bouts of manic depressive sociopathy and self-destruction. Sonny’s dark moods and unpredictable temper have fascinated every woman he’s been involved with, and served as a catalyst for countless plotlines.

Too often on soap operas, important issues are addressed briefly, and then abandoned. Drug addictions are broken in a few months, never to be mentioned again. Diseases are fought, defeated and forgotten. But General Hospital’s Bipolar Disorder storyline has been given years to flourish.

Episodically, Sonny’s contentedness as Port Charles’ gangster-in-chief disappears, and he has what the characters on the show label “a break down”. He gets more violent than usual, he breaks things, he verbally abuses everyone in his presence, and he falls into an emotional black abyss.

How Sonny gets to that place, and how to get him out again, has become one of General Hospital’s long-running mysteries. At first, Sonny’s black moods were explained to the viewer in terms of the abuse he suffered as a child.

As General Hospital’s storyline continued to unfold, viewers became aware that Sonny was suffering from a chemical imbalance long before the characters themselves became aware of it. Only after years of watching the cycle of mental destruction, is the viewer finally seeing the character of Sonny Corinthos get psychiatric care. This mirrors reality, where those who suffer from bipolar disorder are often unwilling or unable to seek help until friends and family members force them to do so.

It helps that actor, Maurice Benard, suffers from the disease himself; he never hits a false note. But General Hospital’s exquisitely slow reveal in this storyline has been an education for fans, has forced the writers to reach beyond their comfort zones, and given the actors the opportunity to delve more deeply. The result is the kind of television excellence not normally expected from a daytime drama.

To be sure, there’s much to criticize in General Hospital’s moral ambiguity when it comes to this storyline and its tendency to make excuses for abhorrent behavior. Critics will point out that on General Hospital, if you’re a murdering criminal, it’s generally because you were beaten as a child, have a mental disorder, or lost part of your brain during a car accident. Worse, every General Hospital episode featuring Sonny and his shrink inevitably brings up unfavorable and inadvertently comedic comparisons with HBO’s the Sopranos. And Executive Producer, Robert Guza’s unabashed love of mobsters strips his authorial voice of its moral authority, and undermines some of the good work he’s trying to do.

But looking past that, the exploration of manic depression has thus far been one of General Hospital’s unreserved success stories.

The show even seems to be dodging the temptation to close the book on Sonny’s mental illness now that it’s been diagnosed. This week, General Hospital explored why patients are resistant to taking drugs that might treat their mental disorders. This powerful, and little explored issue, was handled with honesty and bravery.

So, kudos to General Hospital for educating the public, and touching a generation of viewers. In the world of daytime television, this is how it should be done.

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