Bipolar disorder has gained its share of notoriety, being featured in TV shows, movies and books; but in some cases, this complex condition has been broadly reduced to extreme changes in mood and behavior.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is a mental disorder that involves bouts of major depression and periods of mania (euphoria, poor judgment and extreme risk-taking activity) in a cyclic pattern. This disorder usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood, but children also can meet diagnostic criteria. There are three different types of bipolar disorder:
Bipolar I Disorder – marked by manic episodes that last at least a week or require hospital care, usually followed by depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks.
Bipolar II Disorder – marked by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but these episodes are not a severe as the manic episodes seen with Bipolar I Disorder.
Cyclothymic Disorder (or Cyclothymia) – marked by periods of hypomanic symptoms as well as periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years, but the severity of these symptoms do not meet the diagnostic requirements for a hypomanic and depressive episode.
Diagnoses are not uncommon, with an estimated 46 million people globally living with any form of bipolar disorder, including 5.7 million people in the United States. Some well-known public figures have been open about their diagnosis, including Mariah Carey, Carrie Fisher and Demi Lovato, who describes her experience: “For years, people said I was depressed, and I actually didn’t know myself why I was so upset and why I would have these episodes of mania — what I now know is mania… Sometimes I felt invincible, and it was these moments when my mind would go all over the place.”
Bipolar disorder is not as well understood as more common disorders like depression, anxiety or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and debunking some common myths and misconceptions is the first step to breaking down the stigma surrounding a diagnosis that affects many.
Myth: Mood swings always indicate bipolar disorder.
Changes and fluctuations in a person’s mood do not necessarily indicate bipolar disorder, and it’s harmful to describe someone as “acting bipolar” if they are experiencing times of happiness and sadness in quick succession. It is not unusual for people to experience mood swings on a weekly or even daily basis, and using blanket terms to describe a person’s mood changes only adds stigma to those who are living with bipolar disorder. A person must be diagnosed by a mental health professional using specific criteria, and in the case of bipolar disorder, these extremely distressing fluctuations in mood are often characterized by harmful behaviors such as suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
Myth: Mania is a happy, fun feeling.
Mania is often portrayed in movies as euphoric and enjoyable. While for some that may be true, mania can also be dangerous and debilitating, sometimes leading to impaired functioning and even hospitalization. Symptoms of mania include extreme irritability, hallucinations and symptoms of psychosis like delusions and erratic behavior. A person with bipolar disorder experiencing a manic episode may feel like they do not have control over their body or might even be paranoid about the people around them, leading to difficulty functioning in everyday life.
Myth: People with bipolar disorder are violent.
It’s important to understand that people living with bipolar disorder are not inherently violent. In many cases, their symptoms may include irritability and impulsivity, which may lead to aggressive behaviors. However, aggressive or violent behaviors shouldn’t automatically be attributed to a person’s diagnosis; current environment, childhood trauma or comorbid substance use disorder can also be contributing factors.
Myth: There’s nothing you can do to help a loved one with bipolar disorder.
Although there is no cure, a person living with bipolar disorder can benefit greatly from their support network and community resources. Education can go a long way in understanding how to best help someone with a diagnosis, and there are many ways you can offer support. According to Mental Health First Aid, you can offer support by: listening nonjudgmentally, helping a person explore treatment options and encouraging self-help strategies like getting enough sleep and avoiding substance use. Family therapy has also been shown to be beneficial.
People with bipolar disorder deserve understanding, respect, and knowledge of the facts about their illness. Stereotypes and broad statements can be harmful to those experiencing a disorder, and we can all benefit from having educated conversations with one another. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in a respectful manner! The more we talk about bipolar disorder, the faster we can end stigma and empower those living with a diagnosis.
You can also #BeTheDifference by taking a Mental Health First Aid course to learn more about bipolar disorder and how you can support people in your community. For more information about this and other mental health diagnoses, check out our other blogs:
Heiser, C. (2021, May 20). Demi Lovato speaks up about living with bipolar disorder. Women’s Health. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a19925262/demi-lovato-be-vocal-campaign/
Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Miasnikov, C. (2021, May 5). Myths and facets of bipolar disorder. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/May-2021/Myths-and-Facts-of-Bipolar-Disorder
National Institute of Mental Health. (2020, January). Bipolar disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder
Solani, D., Ritchie, H., Roser, M. (2018). Mental health. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health#bipolar-disorder
The Recovery Village. (2021, April 9). 13 myths about bipolar disorder. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/bipolar-disorder/related/bipolar-myths/
The Recovery Village. (2021, April 16). Bipolar disorder and substance abuse. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/bipolar-disorder/substance-abuse/