Bipolar Disorder is one of the many mental illnesses that I treat in my private practice. Unfortunately, much of what people think they know about bipolar disorder is not true. Inaccurate portrayals of Bipolar Disorder seem to be everywhere: on the news, in books, on TV, and in movies, even in the way we talk to each other about Bipolar Disorder. These misconceptions can be very damaging to those suffering from Bipolar Disorder in several ways, not the least of which is that they further contribute to the stigma related to mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 4.4% of adults in the United States will experience Bipolar Disorder at some time in their life. This means that Bipolar Disorder is not as rare as most people believe it to be. By educating yourself about what Bipolar Disorder is, and isn’t, you can be part of the solution.
Let’s review and dispel some myths commonly associated with Bipolar Disorder; here are the 8 most common that I have experienced:
Myth: Being Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder means you are crazy.
Absolutely not. Bipolar Disorder is simply a label we put on a grouping of symptoms in order to best describe what someone is experiencing. I’ve had many clients tell me that they feel “crazy” at times, but with some education about symptoms and how to manage them, this decreases significantly. You cannot pick out someone who has Bipolar Disorder in a crowd; most often, you would only know if they told you. The nature of Bipolar Disorder is that symptoms occur in “episodes” of depression or mania, and the rest of the time the individual may be symptom-free. In fact, someone can have only one episode of mania in their lifetime and never experience it again.
Myth: If someone gets angry frequently, they have Bipolar Disorder.
This is not an accurate portrayal of Bipolar Disorder. People tend to say “they are so Bipolar” when someone overreacts to something, and this is incorrect. Mood reactivity is when someone moves between sad, happy, and angry quickly during the day. People with Bipolar Disorder, however, tend to experience much longer mood episodes, with depressive episodes lasting two weeks, mania lasting about a week, and hypomania lasting 2-3 days.
Myth: People who have Bipolar Disorder cannot live a normal life.
False. Someone with Bipolar Disorder can absolutely live a “normal” life. Symptoms can be managed with medication and therapy. I tend to describe medication as “taking the edge off” of mood symptoms, making symptoms more manageable so that the work in therapy can be done. Managing Bipolar Disorder usually looks like medication compliance while working in therapy to identify stressors, triggers, coping skills, supports, and a crisis plan. People with Bipolar Disorder can and do work “normal” jobs and have families.
Myth: Bipolar Disorder defines who you are.
Just like with any chronic illness, it requires management, but does not have to be your identity. People do not say “I am diabetes,” or “I am eczema,” so you don’t have to say “I am Bipolar.”
Myth: Everyone with Bipolar Disorder has wild mood swings.
False. People with Bipolar Disorder can have severe mood episodes, but it doesn’t always present that way. Often times, people experience depression more often than mania. Depressive episodes can be mild and not noticeable to anyone except the individual experiencing it. People can also experience hypomania, which is a less intense version of mania that may be minimally disruptive.
Myth: There is only one type of Bipolar Disorder.
There are two major categories for Bipolar Disorder: 1 and 2. Bipolar 1 is characterized by at least one manic episode. Bipolar 2 is characterized by at least one depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode. There are also diagnostic specifiers including, but not limited to: mild, moderate, severe, with anxious distress, with atypical features, with peripartum onset, with seasonal pattern, with rapid cycling. Bipolar Disorder can be difficult to diagnose; it is important to talk to a mental health professional honestly about your past and current symptoms in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis.
Myth: Bipolar Disorder is a personal weakness or character flaw.
False. Bipolar Disorder is a medical condition, just like any other health condition. It is no reflection of your strength/weakness as a person. Individuals diagnosed cannot just “pull themselves together,” it requires treatment. Period. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to “just walk it off,” and we shouldn’t do the same to someone suffering from Bipolar Disorder, or any mental illness for that matter.
Myth: Once you are feeling better, you can stop taking your medications.
This myth is tragically common among those who have Bipolar Disorder and their families. Oftentimes with therapy and medication management, an individual will feel much better, and will want to stop their medications. Sometimes, family members will notice how well they are doing and encourage them to stop taking medication (which I believe is at least partially due to the stigma of taking psychotropic medications). Unfortunately, the nature of Bipolar Disorder is that it is chronic and probably requires continued management. It’s similar to someone with Diabetes who feels better after taking insulin, but will need to continue taking it nonetheless. Medication can act as a preventative, to help people avoid future relapses. Talk to your doctor before stopping or making any changes to your medication.
It is difficult to cover all the myths and education in one article, so if you believe that you or someone you know may be suffering from Bipolar Disorder (or any other mental illness), please reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. If you would like more information on mental illness, including Bipolar Disorder, NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a wonderful national and local resource. NAMI provides nonjudgmental education, resources, and support for individuals struggling with mental illness, and also for the family members of those struggling with mental illness. Visit www.nami.org for more information.
By: Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC
Licensed Professional Counselor – Wake Forest