The (un)managed self: paradoxical forms of agency in self-management of bipolar disorder

Cult Med Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;35(4):448-83. doi: 10.1007/s11013-011-9231-1.


Self-management of mental illness is a therapeutic paradigm that draws on a distinctly biomedical conceptualization of the isolability of personhood from pathology. This discourse posits a stable and rational patient/consumer who can observe, anticipate, and preside over his disease through a set of learned practices. But in the case of bipolar disorder, where the rationality of the patient is called into question, the managing self is elusive, and the disease that is managed coincides with the self. While humanist critiques of the biomedical model as applied to mental illness have argued that its logic fatalistically denies patients intentionality and effectiveness (Luhrmann, Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry, 2000), biomedical proponents claim that psychiatry's way of envisioning the body as under the control of the intentional mind actually returns agency to the patient/consumer. Rose (The Psychiatric Gaze, 1999) remarks that biomedical models have the potential to "[open] that which was considered natural to a form of choice" (p. 37), and that techniques of medical self-control help constitute the free embodied liberal subject who is obliged to calculate and choose. Through an examination of clinical literature as well as the practices and narratives of members of a bipolar support group, this paper explores ethnographically the possibilities for subjectivity and agency that are conditioned or foreclosed by the self-management paradigm, which seems to simultaneously confer and deny rational selfhood to bipolar patients. To express their expertise as rational self-managers, patients/consumers must, paradoxically, articulate constant suspicion toward their present thoughts and emotions, and distrust of an imagined future self. I argue that through their self-management practices, bipolar support group members model provisional and distributed forms of agency based on an elusive, discontinuous, and only partially knowable or controllable self-revealing, perhaps, the limits of the contemporary reification and medicalization of both selfhood and disease.

MeSH terms

  • Bipolar Disorder*
  • Humans
  • Self Care / psychology*
  • United States