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Empire‘s treatment of bipolar disorder strikes me as problematic

It didn’t take Empire long to delve back into the melodrama that is the Lyon family following a lengthy winter break — in tonight’s second episode of the spring half, you could actually say viewers got a double dose of it.

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t caught this week’s episode, you’re gonna want to circle back to this after the fact.)

To be precise, that is to say we saw two characters killed off. Yes, two! Fans bid adieu to that backstabbing Brit, Camilla (Naomi Campbell), and her cancer-stricken wife, Mimi (Marisa Tomei). Y’all know Empire doesn’t do anything little.

Image: Giphy

But, as strange as it may sound, those deaths were secondary to the nuanced inner workings of another character: Andre.

Let it be known I am a huge fan of Trai Byers, who brings the role of Andre to life. He plays the character with a tremendous level of depth and poignancy, for which I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit.

So it’s hard to admit I have a love/hate relationship with his character — and it’s for a very personal reason.

On the one hand, I feel very grateful and happy to see a show on the air that so prominently features a character with mental health issues. There exists a certain stigma surrounding mental health issues, and it makes it nearly impossible for people who struggle with them to speak openly and honestly about them. However, dialogue opens the doors to so much understanding and could help countless people who are trying to feel their way through the fog.

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I know, because someone who is very dear to my heart has bipolar disorder. Now that she has found a successful course of treatment, she is the same beautiful, fun, silly, smart and even-keeled girl I grew up with. She has never told me so outright, but I know she is uncomfortable speaking about her diagnosis for fear of how people may perceive her.

The stigma is a daunting thing to overcome. On occasion, my friend does work through it in order to share her story. She is brave in a way that inspires me every single day.

The reality is that mental health issues are not unlike other chronic illnesses people must manage through their lives, like diabetes. So why are people with mental health issues viewed in such a polarizing way? With proper treatment, many people with mental health issues are essentially asymptomatic, just like my friend.

Which brings us to Andre.

Image: Giphy

I love that Empire‘s writers are introducing a character with bipolar disorder into the mainstream. I love that they show the sometimes scary side of this disorder, and I love that they often allude to the fact that Andre must maintain his meds if he wants to keep his manic episodes at bay.

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However, I worry that by relying so much on this character’s “unstable” nature, they could actually be feeding into the stigma. A cursory glance at Twitter proves people are having trouble distinguishing Andre as someone with a mental health disorder, as opposed to someone easy to write off as “crazy.”

Having said all that, Byers is so strong in the role that I truly believe he has the capacity to temper the melodrama in a way that sheds the right kind of light on living with mental health issues.

Tonight’s heartfelt moment when Jamal and Hakeem helped ground their brother with a moving song they wrote for him proved that the show won’t suffer if they give Andre’s character a little more room to struggle with his disorder in a way that feels authentic and emotional.

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Judging by next week’s teaser trailer, we’re going to dive even deeper into this subject matter when Cookie forces Lucious to square up with his past — including his mother, a woman we know from flashbacks also suffered from bipolar disorder or some other mental health issue.

Image: Giphy

Here’s the truth: Empire is pulpy and soapy and sometimes silly, yes, but it has substance, too. We’ve seen it in the way the writers tackle weighty topics like race and sexuality. So my sincere hope, moving forward, is that they give mental health issues the same gravitas.

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