If we asked you what comes to mind when you think of mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder, what would you say? Be honest with yourself – we guess that some of the words or phrases that popped up weren’t all that kind or considerate. We don’t ask to make you feel bad about yourself, or to blame you for your thoughts, but rather to open up a conversation from which you can increase self-awareness and understanding. Unfortunately, Bipolar Disorder is quite misunderstood in our society and this can invite stigma towards people who live with it everyday. This sometimes means that individuals who would otherwise benefit from support and treatment, go without it, which can lead to worsening of their condition and quality of life.
For those of you who don’t already know, Bipolar Disorder is characterised by episodes of severe mood disturbance, alternating between mania or hypomania and depression (Miller & Black, 2020). It is considered to be a lifelong illness, that can vary in its course, severity and impairment, and that carries a high mortality rate including risk of suicide (Miller & Black, 2020). It is actually one of the most common of the mental illnesses and often occurs alongside other mental health problems, but the way it comes about is largely unknown (Gordovez & McMahon, 2020) – which likely contributes to the lack of understanding that society has about Bipolar Disorder as well.
Given that so many members of society suffer from Bipolar Disorder on a daily basis it is important that we learn the facts about this mental illness. We want to start by debunking some of the common myths (wrongly) believed by a large number of individuals.
MYTH – Bipolar Disorder is just mood swings, which everyone has anyway.
FACT – It is true that everyone experiences mood swings – that are often dependent on the ups and downs of life experiences – but people who have Bipolar Disorder suffer from extreme mood changes that can often last for long periods of time. Often, the mood disturbance is also out of context – that is, it does not necessarily matter what is going on in their environment, people who suffer from Bipolar Disorder experience mood changes anyway. These changes in mood are accompanied by changes in sleep, energy and activity levels which can cause severe disruptions to a person’s life. It is important to remember that just because you go from being happy one minute, to sad or irritable the next, does not mean that you have Bipolar Disorder.
MYTH – Experiencing mania is helpful, fun or positive as you have high energy and get things done quicker.
FACT – While the experience of mania may look appealing to outsiders, especially if you struggle with low motivation or low moods, it is not really as it seems. Although it can mean that people have a lot of energy, it is also highly unpredictable, which can be very scary for the person experiencing the manic episode, and lead to feelings of being out of control. When people who don’t have Bipolar Disorder are feeling motivated or are in a good mood, it usually stops there, but mania is markedly different – often it leads to the person feeling irritable and impulsive, and to them taking risks or making decisions that have damaging effects on their lives. And sometimes, mania can come with other symptoms including psychosis (hearing or seeing things that aren’t really there) which can be stressful and debilitating.
MYTH – The ‘highs and lows’ of Bipolar Disorder happen regularly in predictable cycles.
FACT – In order to be officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, a person must experience defined periods of both mania/hypomania and depression that last a certain amount of time. However, this does not mean that ongoing changes in mood happen at these same intervals, and some people are unable to predict when/if their mood will change at all. While some people only experience symptoms once or twice a year, others may struggle with bouts of mania and depression much more often. Unfortunately, a major debilitating part of this disorder is that symptoms can occur in messy patterns, and sometimes at the same time (mania and depression together) which is all the more difficult to manage.
MYTH – People who have Bipolar Disorder are violent or scary.
FACT – While some people who suffer from Bipolar Disorder can feel irritable and act in aggressive ways, it is important to remember that this is a function of their environment and personal history, and not inherently ‘them’. Sometimes, other symptoms of Bipolar Disorder such as talking excessively, risk-taking and being jumpy/energetic can come across as intimidating or scary as well – but these are all uncontrollable parts of Bipolar Disorder. While irritability, impulsivity and anger are key symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, they do not automatically make a person violent. Remember, it is not everyone who has Bipolar Disorder who experiences these symptoms – and even if they do it’s certainly not all the time.
MYTH – Bipolar Disorder cannot be treated, so trying to help people with it is hopeless.
FACT – Unfortunately, there is no cure for Bipolar Disorder, but there are many treatment options available to help people manage the condition. Often people who experience the disorder have only mild or manageable symptoms, or only see changes in their mood once or twice a year. Similarly, people with Bipolar Disorder are not always either manic or depressed – they also experience periods of balanced mood. With the help of trusted health professionals, a social support network and education, individuals are able to live a meaningful life of good quality. In fact, many people who have Bipolar Disorder are very successful in their careers and personal lives – they may just have to work a bit harder at managing their emotions and moods to do so.
Gordovez, F. J. A., & McMahon, F. J. (2020). The genetics of bipolar disorder. Molecular psychiatry, 25(3), 544-559.
Miller, J. N., & Black, D. W. (2020). Bipolar disorder and suicide: a review. Current psychiatry reports, 22(2), 1-10.