King of the Hill Does a Good Job Illustrating Bipolar Disorder

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I love adult cartoons. Many of them use humor and super human scenarios to make profound points about real life situations and institutions. Shows like the Simpsons and South Park are known for making cutting edge social commentary, but I stumbled upon a great episode of King of the Hill recently that illuminated Bipolar Disorder and brought attention to mental health issues. King of the Hill has been in reruns since 2010. The episode, ‘Just Another Manic Kahn-Day,’ has a story line about the main character Hank’s neighbor who is bipolar. It aired in King of the Hill’s final season in syndication an indication that as the show aged it took on more serious issues as plot lines. The episode does a pretty good job of illuminating the various issues associated with Bipolar Disorder. It is not perfect and lacks some nuance, but might be a good way to expose friends and family of people who have been diagnosed as Bipolar to the mental illness.

In the episode, Hank’s neighbor is left at home for a weekend while his wife and daughter take vacation. Like many people who suffer with a mental illness, Kahn decides to stop taking his medication. Apparently he does not like taking his meds and his wife usually makes him take them. Off his medication, Kahn slips into a manic episode which changes his behavior and turns him into a super friendly, helpful and motivated neighbor. Usually he does not get along with his neighbors, but befriends them in his charismatic manic state and begins taking on projects, some of which he completes with them.

Kahn is highly motivated while manic. He takes on and completes several projects, learns how to paint and paints a portrait of himself, draws elaborate plans for and begins to build a robot grill, completes a puzzle, writes a book and tries to solve various conspiracy theories. I can relate to this illustration of mania. While manic in Miami, I worked tireless hours for the Obama campaign, wrote four albums and tons of songs, ran a start up record label, wrote for Hypervocal, threw parties and more. Like Kahn, my mind raced. I had ideas pop into my head all of the time- some of them wild and very difficult to actually pull off. My thinking was not focused or clear. In the episode, Kahn is jittery, speaks quickly and can not stay focused on one project at a time. While they skip over the anger that is often associated with mania and other dangerous behavior that bipolar people participate in while manic, for a cartoon they do a good job of painting a picture of what it is like to be manic.

Later, still off his medication, Kahn slips into depression. At this point in the show all of his work comes to a halt, Kahn can not get off the couch and he lets his home fall into disrepair. The time the show spends on depression is a lot shorter than the time they spend on mania so it gives the impression that depression is not as major of a factor in Bipolar Disorder as it is. Like Kahn, I have found that depression can set in at any time- usually after a manic episode- but unlike Kahn I have found that depression can last for a very long time if not treated. In the episode Kahn is depressed for what seems like a few hours and then slips back into mania. Hank runs to get Kahn medication to get him out of his depressive state, but by the time Hank gets back to Kahn’s house he is now manic and does not go back into a depressive phase again in the episode. I do not believe this is typical, but everyone’s experience with the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder can be different.

Again, the episode is not perfect in illustrating Bipolar Disorder but I think it does a good enough job of explaining the mental illness for people who know very little about it. They cover depression, mania, stigma, the reactions of friends and how they can be supportive, the importance of treatment, etc. If you are looking for a way to learn some basics about Bipolar Disorder, this King of the Hill episode is a good place to start. The episode is funny, smart and is an important contribution to the dialog around mental health.