There has been plenty of debate lately over how Netflix shows depict mental health issues (13 Reason Why, we’re looking at you), and the potential ramifications for vulnerable viewers. Get ready, because we’re adding one more to the mix. In the past four seasons, Orange Is the New Black has depicted various forms of mental health challenges, particularly through the character of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba). But in the recently released season 5, the show may have crossed the line.
*SPOILER ALERT* The following contains information from episode 11 and 13 of season 5.
The latest season takes place over a matter of days, as the prisoners gain control of Litchfield Penitentiary and the prison descends into chaos. For Warren, that means losing her steady schedule of prescribed mood-stabilizing medication. In episode 11, Warren has an emotional breakdown and in an effort to calm her down, Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) grabs lithium from the pharmacy because she “read somewhere that it’s good for crazy.” But after Warren takes the pills, she falls asleep and is unable to be woken up. In order to reverse the effect of lithium, the inmates search through first aid kits for “uppers,” like Adderall or speed, and end up using an EpiPen to jumpstart Warren back to life. In the show, lithium is treated basically like the poisoned apple from Snow White.
It got us thinking about the drug and what it’s really all about.
FLARE reached out to Toronto psychiatrist Dr. David S. Goldbloom to ask him about it. He won’t speculate on what mental health issues Warren has, but he says that the depiction of lithium’s effect on her “makes zero sense.”
“First of all, a single dose of lithium is not sedating,” he says, adding that it typically takes around five days of regular daily doses for the drug to be effective for a patient.
While Orange Is the New Black is a dramatic TV show—not a documentary—Goldbloom, who is the senior medical adviser for the Centre for Addition and Mental Health (CAMH) and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, worries there could still be implications for the misinformation it presents.
“First of all, it’s never a good idea to take medication that isn’t prescribed,” he says. “Second of all, I’d be concerned if seeing this episode scared people off taking the drug if they’ve been prescribed it.”
Though the ominous music and dramatic scene leading up to Warren’s lithium dose give the audience the sense that this medication is dangerous, Goldbloom says that lithium is a mood-stabilizing medication regularly used to treat people with bipolar disorder, and can also be used in conjunction with other medications for depression. The most common side effects he’s seen are increased thirst, urination and in some causes, slight nausea or feeling a bit shaky—but never a Sleeping Beauty-style coma.
“Lithium is a very safe and effective and important medication for the treatment of people with bipolar disorder,” says Goldbloom. “It would be unfortunate if a dramatic and distorted representation of the effect of a single dose scared people from taking it.”