7 Shocking Facts About the Netflix Elisa Lam Docuseries and Bipolar Disorder

Elisa Lam Docuseries

A wildly popular docuseries on Netflix explores the mysterious disappearance of Elisa Lam, a Canadian tourist who arrived in Los Angeles in 2013 only to vanish days later while staying at a rundown hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel airs the last known footage of the 21-year-old—a grainy video of her acting strangely in one of the hotel’s elevators. In the video, Elisa looks scared, frantically presses multiple buttons, appears to be trying to hide from someone, and makes some bizarre hand gestures.

When the police released the video days after her disappearance, it quickly went viral, garnering millions of views and dozens of conspiracy theories. When Elisa’s lifeless body was found in one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel, the mystery and theories grew exponentially. Was she murdered? Was she on drugs? Was it suicide?

DID MENTAL ILLNESS CONTRIBUTE TO ELISA LAM’S DEATH?

In the end (spoiler alert!), officials ruled it an accidental death and indicated that bipolar disorder was a contributing factor. Elisa had been diagnosed with bipolar spectrum disorder, which affects nearly 6 million Americans and is a severe mood disorder in which people cycle between depressive episodes and mania.

On her Tumblr account, Elisa had written openly about having bipolar disorder and depression. Despite this, an army of Internet sleuths who emerged in the wake of her disappearance gravitated to more macabre theories about her death. Like too many people in our society, they overlooked the very real and negative impacts mental illness can have on a person’s behavior and life. The Netflix docuseries touches on Elisa Lam’s mental health struggles, but there is so much more you need to know about bipolar disorder.

The Netflix docuseries touches on Elisa Lam’s mental health struggles, but there is so much more you need to know about bipolar disorder. Click To Tweet

7 SURPRISING FACTS ABOUT BIPOLAR DISORDER

1. People with bipolar disorder often stop taking their medication.

In the Elisa Lam docuseries, the coroner’s report revealed only traces of the medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder, including antidepressants, a mood stabilizer, and an antipsychotic. Curiously, the amounts detected in her system were less than what had been prescribed, meaning Elisa was either skipping doses or taking less than recommended. In the docuseries, a psychiatrist suggests, “I think Elisa stopped taking her medications. And once she stops taking her meds, the risk for a mood episode goes way up.”

It is not unusual for people with bipolar disorder to stop taking their medications. Bipolar disorder is typically very responsive to treatment. In fact, people with this condition often feel so much better after starting a prescription, they believe they no longer have an underlying issue and stop taking their meds. A 2016 review of existing research shows that as many as 70% of bipolar patients don’t adhere to prescription recommendations. Noncompliance results in worsening symptoms, increased hospitalizations, and a rise in suicidal behavior.

2. Some bipolar people experience psychosis.

Experts interviewed in the docuseries suggest that Elisa’s strange behavior in the elevator may indicate that she was experiencing a psychotic episode related to mania in bipolar disorder. Psychosis is associated with a disconnect from reality and can involve hallucinations, delusions, disjointed thinking, confusion, and a lack of self-awareness. In some people, it can lead to risky or dangerous behaviors.

3. Bipolar disorder increases the risk of suicide.

As many as 60% of bipolar patients attempt suicide at least once in their lifetime, according to a 2019 review in Medicina. In untreated bipolar disorder, an alarming 1 in 5 complete suicide. Does this mean Elisa Lam was intentionally trying to harm herself? We will never know the truth about what exactly was happening in Elisa’s mind as she climbed inside the water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel. But sadly, far too many individuals with this condition take their own lives.

4. Teens are vulnerable to bipolar disorder.

In the docuseries, it is revealed that by age 21, Elisa Lam had already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This isn’t unusual, and in fact, it is most common for the onset of this mental health condition to occur in a person’s late teens to mid-20s. Elisa had also been diagnosed with depression, which research shows may be an early symptom of bipolar disorder. In fact, 1 in 5 adolescents who experience the onset of major depressive disorder will develop bipolar disorder—within 5 years!

5. Having bipolar disorder is stigmatizing.

The Netflix series reveals that Elisa wrote about her mental health issues on her Tumblr account, exposing how painful and isolating it can be. Among her posts, Elisa wrote:

“Apparently, I’m bipolar. A few good days followed by a week of sleeping. That is the pattern.”

“Depression sucks.”

“I had a relapse.”

“Fellow bipolars, you may be the only ones who understand what this is like.”

“It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? I’m just so tired. So very tired.”

“I don’t want to live like this.”

“According to some people, I have a chemical imbalance. Can I just inhabit someone else’s brain?”

Feeling stigmatized, misunderstood, and alone is common among people with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions. Finding others to talk to and share your feelings—whether it’s a mental health professional or a support group—can be helpful.

6. Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder.

Brain SPECT imaging shows that bipolar disorder is associated with abnormal brain activity. In bipolar patients at Amen Clinics, we see increased activity in the limbic system (emotional center), amygdala (fear center), hippocampus (mood and memory center), and cingulate gyrus (the brain’s gear shifter).

Elisa Lam Docuseries and Bipolar Disorder

7. Many people are misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Many people are misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder after they have had a significant concussion that affects their prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes. When someone is misdiagnosed and given treatment for the wrong condition, it can make symptoms worse. Anyone struggling with symptoms of bipolar disorder should seek a diagnosis that includes brain imaging to rule out other factors and to help identify any co-existing conditions.

Bipolar disorder, depression, mania, psychosis, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever, and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

20 Comments

  1. I visited New York amen clinic for spect scan and consult in 2017/18
    I’d like a follow up , perhaps a telemedicine consult ?. Lmk best way to go about having direction here . I am still suffering brain imbalances , Thx

    Comment by Joni Tipping — March 12, 2021 @ 3:33 AM

  2. I am disappointed that support is given to a disorder for which is most definitely been used to the ruin of many for their entire life. The manifestations of bipolar (when used as a label) are that of a chemical imbalance. We are a delicate balance of amino acids that play a role in the expression of our mental and emotional well being. Our bodies can manifest so many mental/emotional expressions due to many very normal reactions in life (i.e. change in barometric pressure, dehydration, allergies, traumatic injury of mental/emotional hurt or abuse , undiagnosed sugar imbalances and disorders…). However the most prominent for which many medical staff and pharmaceutical company sit in their ivory towers is the abuse of prescription drugs. Society looks on victims of street drug abuse with distain and pity, but lack empathy. The same problem dressed up with prescription drugs somehow gives the problem respect under a label, but it is heartless… they place a band-aid on a problem that they are unwilling to give the time . The rebounding effect due to the solution by use of drugs (whether street or prescription) will cause all the observed mental/emotional and psychosis expressions by which bipolar is defined. The label has become the biggest umbrella to catch the greatest clientele of lifetime addicts (street or prescription). The medical world has dressed up this disorder to wear like a badge as the excuse for not finding real answers…people are dying and ending the length of their life with brain lobotomies caused by drugs… it is criminal. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Anyone ever diagnosed with bipolar that spirals into the “so called healing” of drug use… if missed medication happens, will go fully into psychosis and terrible mental/emotional expressions that can most definitely make the Hollywood dramas that feed their world, but it is more due from the spell bounding effect of experiencing coming off an addiction. Unfortunately, by the time one ever discovers they were made a mouse in an experimental cage, the brain becomes altered by the drug… and it takes an extremely strong person with a support team to find a true road to recovery. I am disappointed that support is given to a man-given label and stigmatize that person for life by calling them diseased… it has become the modern day leprosy. I was so hoping with the help and reality that has begun to surface with SPEC IMAGING that true hope could be restored to “bipolar” victims for a road to healing with dignity after experiencing mental/emotional trauma… finally a means to truly listen to their story see the damage at the control center of a human, and actually place someone on a healing path. I know there will be skeptics that say I don’t understand… my lessons from the sideline of watching the abuse and living to believe and prove differently is more than I have the space to express nor do I feel to validate. Some of the most brilliant minds, actors & actresses, scientists, writers, artists, singers… have genius for which those who diagnose them could only hope to have… have been diagnosed with this so-called disease or label. Perhaps, in the future rather than destroy such great minds, we will find the way to harness them for the good attention they deserve…come to understand the deep places their mind takes them and use for good, rather than sedate… change their brain chemistry… and hang them out to dry as another person who didn’t take their medicine while hiding cowardly behind the knowledge that the very practice for healing is an abuse in itself. Unfortunately, there is good and evil that exist, and that genius used for the evil of this world is not and should never become an excuse… when it started as a choice.

    Comment by michelle richeson — March 12, 2021 @ 4:10 AM

  3. I would be very interested to know if you start to see any patterns between “Bipolar Disorder brains” and brains with inflammation/infection, such as PANS/PANDAS. I would love to see psychiatrists start to look for and rule in or out infections and inflammation of the brain before they start to diagnose and treat what they believe is solely a mental health disorder without causation.

    Comment by Julie — March 12, 2021 @ 5:26 AM

  4. Such a sad and common story that was only made unique by tv. I got my spect scan at the Costa Mesa location almost 2 years ago and it had helped. Being diagnosed previously as bipolar 2. My spect scan showed loss of blood flow to my hippocampus and cingulate gyrus. It was determined by Dr. Dermal that I had several brain injuries that was causing bipolar symptoms and actions. He had diagnosed me as cyclothymic disorder, a less sever form of bipolar.

    Why do I mention all this? It’s a suggestion that you take your symptoms and treatment very seriously. I am high functioning and have a successful career, but my mental health can take that away from me at any time. Last June it almost did. With smaller bouts since then.

    Ultimately your treatment, and sadly to say preservation is in your hands. There is nothing more important. You are loved and deserve to see that every day that you are here.

    Comment by James Muilenberg — March 12, 2021 @ 5:50 AM

  5. Thank you for bringing to light this very challenging and sometimes very dangerous condition. If more people would not stimatize mental illnesses, perhaps more would seek treatment and be helped. We live with a condition not of our choosing, but in my case an injury to my frontal lobe as a child. In spite of it, I completed college with a Master’s (almost) before a depressive cycle happened. Those off us with this disorder can still lead a life full of experiences which enrich our lives.

    Comment by Ferris S. Whitfield — March 12, 2021 @ 7:29 AM

  6. Are you seeing long haul covid patients? My niece is 30 and has been experiencing terrible emotional, physical and mental symptoms- she’s desperate feeling because the medical people in Buffalo ny are diagnosing bipolar disorder and prescribing drugs without getting a full picture of her medical history. She says her brain hurts, headaches, nausea, fatigue, pulmonary distress. Would a brain scan like these help her?

    Comment by Kelly Ragan — March 12, 2021 @ 9:21 AM

  7. Hello Kelly, thank you for reaching out. We have seen patients that have tested positive for COVID-19 and experienced symptoms thereafter. We’d be happy to contact you directly with more information. We look forward to speaking with you.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — March 12, 2021 @ 12:17 PM

  8. Hello Joni, thank you for reaching out. We will contact you directly with the next steps. Thank you!

    Comment by Amen Clinics — March 12, 2021 @ 12:19 PM

  9. Avoid Lithium

    Comment by Doris Appelbaum — March 12, 2021 @ 12:34 PM

  10. I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar depression (10 years ago) and am semi-functioning because I am highly compliant with my meds. I’m a pharmacist. I am working part-time and on the days off I’m usually reading or playing WWF on my phone. I don’t have the desire or energy to get out of bed. I speak to a psychiatrist every other month and a psychologist every month. Until the pandemic I was also attending a support group but that I didn’t find very helpful. I need a change in meds to help battle the depression but my right hand has started to tremor so afraid of TD. Any suggestions?

    Comment by Darlene Mednick — March 12, 2021 @ 12:40 PM

  11. While the dreaded bipolar will predispose someone to suicide. Anyone can kill themself-if they have No Hope. What’s truly sad is that it takes NF to dramatize a young woman’s horrible life for our society to take notice. Shows what we are focused on ? I’ve had the dx since 1979- Yet only a few years priori had an excruciating Trauma in my life. Of course, I rejected the meds for close to 20 years only taking them for awhile, then getting angry and thinking “I don’t need this” Finally , in a break- my adult child Asked me to take the med, I made a promise to them, and I have now kept that promise for 20 years. I am a Professional, with a college degree, and have worked in my profession for 30 years. But, at any moment my career could be ended, due to Closed Minded Ignorant people. It’s important that my dx not be known to others. The general public is very mean concerning Brain health. I’m so grateful for the work that Dr. Amen is doing. I’d love to have a Spect Scan , and do this on the Family plan. Be kind, you never know where someone has walked in their shoes.

    Comment by Kris — March 12, 2021 @ 7:11 PM

  12. What helps with depression and anxiety? I know you all promote the scans, how does seeing the brain help with the action plan? I heard that it was interesting but the plan of action was lacking.

    Wondering what you think of HRT? I just had the pellet implanted and my anxiety has increased.

    Comment by Bethany Chamberlain — March 13, 2021 @ 6:14 AM

  13. I’d like your thoughts on how a young, petite woman with no notable swim or water polo experience was able to close the lid of the tank after getting inside. The “mental illness” conclusion lacks logical evidence and is absent of practical realities.

    Comment by Christa Campbell — March 13, 2021 @ 7:02 AM

  14. Hallo, being a practicing physician and a hypnoses therapist since about 40 years I see a lot of people with psycho-mental issues. Here in Germany, where I practice, brain imaging is largely (very largely) unknown.I see a lot of people wich high score ACE (3-6) as well as “bi-polar” experience and psychotic patients.
    I follow the work of doctor Amen and wonder if I can get any diagnostic support from your clinic.
    I highly appreciate the work of your clinic and only hope that the next generations of physicians adopt a true scientific approach (looking for the cause) to mental and psychic health rather than repeating statements of the “elderly”.
    Best
    Peter Auhagen MD

    Comment by Peter Auhagen — March 13, 2021 @ 7:36 AM

  15. My mom has had mania and depression most of her life. She was able to successfully raise 4 daughters. She finally had to seek medical treatment 2 weeks ago. She has been prescribed Geodon. Anyone experience any side effects?

    Comment by Cathy — March 13, 2021 @ 9:54 AM

  16. I’m assuming that many people suffering from mental issues are also not eating well because they have neither the energy nor the desire to plan meals, shop, cook, etc. I believe that many mental issues can be traced directly back to gluten sensitivity and or a history of eating non-food (fast food, chips, ice cream, soda, etc) Once meds help them to function more, a change in diet would be most beneficial. And no, it’s not simplifying the problem. Changing ones diet is major!!

    Comment by TL — March 15, 2021 @ 7:24 AM

  17. Hello Kris, thanks for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you directly with more information scheduling an appointment at one of our clinics. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — March 15, 2021 @ 10:45 AM

  18. Hello Bethany. We have lots of blogs published on our website that cover depression and anxiety that you might want to check out. Here’s one blog that goes over depression and hormones that you might find helpful: https://www.amenclinics.com/blog/is-it-depression-or-just-your-hormones/

    Comment by Amen Clinics — March 15, 2021 @ 10:56 AM

  19. Recently my nephew who had struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his adult life stopped taking his medication throwing him into serious psychosis. Unfortunately this resulted in him attacking his mother, my sister who is 76 years old stabbing her with a knife and beating her severely. She managed to escape and run to an elderly neighbors house whom my nephew also attacked. Another neighbor hearing the commotion called 911 and ran over to try and intervene. My nephew also attacked him resulting in the neighbor shooting and killing him. My sister and the elderly neighbor survived the attack but needless to say are traumatized. My sister is seeking counseling but will in so many ways will never get over this. I know this isn’t the typical scenario for bipolar disorder and don’t know what other diagnosis he had. I know when he wasn’t medicated he would sometimes hear voices. I know this is graphic and I do apologize for that. I’m just looking for anything that can help me process this. One minute I am remembering the person he was not the mental illness that had taken him over the next I’m just so angry with him for stopping his meds. Again this is just so much to process.

    Comment by Deborah Benfield — March 18, 2021 @ 12:42 PM

  20. I was diagnosed with Bipolar II 8 years ago, but was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in 1991. I have been suicidal since 1963 when father sex-trafficked me to 2 drunk men; afterwhich I overdosed on aspirin but I did not get sick from the overdose. In 1985 my husband battered me severely trying to crush my back skull resulting in a concussion. 1994 I attempted suicide by overdose prescription medications and was on life support 11 days; I had been treated on psychiatric medications and medical visits since 1991. Currently on Lamotrigine 25 mg twice daily and Respiradone 1 mg twice daily and seems to be working well with the suicidal thoughts gone.; but if I miss doses of RX I become suicidal again with continuous tormenting suicidal ideation. Should I get a SPECT-SCAN? A great help to me was writing my memoir AND MAY GOD BLESS which will be wherever books are sold in early 2021. By this I was able to document my traumatic life and put to rest the torments I suffered with mental illness. I am a faithful Jesus Christ relationship and depend deeply on God’s guidance every day. By prayer & forgiveness of the predators in my life I have found peace.

    Comment by Ruth Ann Comer — March 19, 2021 @ 7:28 AM

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