Celebrities With Bipolar Disorder: Jean Claude Van Damme, Van Gogh, Sting

What’s new in bipolar disorder? Jean Claude Van Damme is bipolar, atypical antipsychotics are less effective than advertised, US highest lifetime rate of bipolar disorder in the world

Belgian-born martial artist, actor and director Jean-Claude Van Damme, best known for the 1989 action film Kickboxer that catapulted him to riches and fame, struggles with bipolar disorder.

Like the character he plays in that movie, kickboxer Kurt Sloane, Van Damme knows firsthand how to freefall into the dumps then skyrocket into riches and fame, and then plunge back to hell again.

Extreme highs and lows have been an intimate part of Van Damme’s life — coping with teenage depression using karate, ballet and “rosy dreams,” falling into a downward spiral of cocaine addiction, grossing over US$100 million worldwide in a single film, 1994’s Timecop, being a sex symbol.

In 2009, “The Muscles from Brussels” came out, speaking to the press opening about his struggles with the serious mood disorder.

In the mid-1990s that Van Damme was formally diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder and placed on sodium valproate, which he calls “that simple salt.” Confronted with a life rapidly spiraling out of control — a cocaine addiction, a month-long rehab program, divorce papers and charges of spousal abuse, the 52-year old action star came near to suicide. Instead, he reached a turning point.

“You just have to take a little salt, and since I’m doing that it’s, like, BOOM! In one week, I felt it kick in. All the commotion around me, all the water around me, moving left and right around me, became like a lake,” he tells the magazine E! Online.

He speaks of working his way out of teenage depression through physical endeavors, saying he was “compensating for (then undiagnosed) manic-depressive disease with training. When I didn’t train for a couple of days, I felt so low and nothing could make me happy.”

About the turning point in his life, when he faced his cocaine addiction and quit cold turkey, he said, “It became a point where I wanted to die. I didn’t have any reasons to live. Maybe it’s selfish to say that, but I was not excited about anything. Then you have to find back your self-esteem. And then, slowly, every piece of yourself becomes precious again. One day it’s, like, either you pass or you don’t. It’s not the drugs, it’s a problem with yourself, which you have to cure.”

Van Damme is bipolar. And so was Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Florence Nightingale and physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. So are Sting, boxer Frank Bruno, former Australian Labor party politician Neil Cole, Richard Dreyfuss and a host of other people.

A serious mental illness, bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels that affect a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. People who have it experience dramatic mood swings — going from overly energetic “high” and irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again. The “up” feeling is called mania and can result in heightened levels of creativity or output — as well as erratic or risky behavior. The down feeling is depression. People with bipolar disorder are at high risk of substance abuse and suicide.

U.S. has highest bipolar rate
Almost two million Americans currently suffer from bipolar disorder and the United States has the highest lifetime rate of bipolar disorder at 4.4 percent, according to the 11-nation study in the March 2012 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. About 2.4 percent of people around the world are bipolar, according to these first comprehensive international figures on the topic compiled by researchers of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.