bipolar disorder myths

As troubling as it is, it’s not uncommon to hear someone negatively refer to another as being so bipolar.”  This term can be used as a way to conceptualize your boss’ behavior after he looses his cool during a meeting (no way it could be due to the recent missed deadlines … right?) or to describe your partner during a relationship dispute (again, I did nothing wrong … he is “bipolar”).

We all have that friend who is emotionally unpredictable, impulsive and just plain moody (we all know the type ), but does that mean they are suffering from the serious mental illness that is bipolar disorder? Not only can the incorrect and lax use of this word be offensive, but it also infers that those who are living with bipolar disorder have a choice in the matter. That could not be further from the truth.

What exactly does it mean to have (yes, have … not be) bipolar? Below, the common myths of this very serious disorder are discussed.

MYTH: My mom is so bipolar. I can never predict if she is going to be in a good mood or mad at me for something trivial.

MEANING: We all have that friend who loses her cool at any moment, or a parent who goes from 0 to 10 in what feels like milliseconds. There are many individuals who find it difficult to manage their own feelings, temper and mood. Others may label these fluctuations and behaviors as ‘being bipolar,’ however, in reality what these individuals are actually experiencing is emotional dysregulation.

In order to be diagnosed with bipolar I or II disorder, an individual must experience a true manic or hypomanic episode respectively.  A manic episode can be diagnosed when somebody experiences elevated, expansive or irritable mood in addition to other symptoms over a period of 1 week (and not a 20 minute outburst or multiple changes of mood during the day). In addition to the elevated mood, other symptoms of mania include a decreased need for sleep (only a few hours of sleep per night…. if at all), a change in risk-taking behaviors (ex: gambling, promiscuity, reckless driving and spending), an increase in goal-oriented activities (ex: impulsively starting a new business), new unrealistic beliefs about the self (grandiosity), a change in speed of talking and thinking (talking so fast that other people can’t interrupt), and distractibility. Hypomania includes the aforementioned symptoms, but the symptoms aren’t as severe and don’t last as long.

MYTH: I have never been depressed, therefore, I must not have bipolar disorder.

MEANING: Just to make things confusing, there are two different types of bipolar disorder; bipolar I and bipolar II disorder. In bipolar I disorder, an individual must experience a true manic episode (as discussed above) and may or may not experience a depressive episode (hence, one can be diagnosed with bipolar I disorder if he or she has never felt depressed).

Those with bipolar II disorder have experienced a hypomanic episode, and (at some point) a two-week episode of depressed mood (in addition to a change in sleep, appetite, memory, concentration, energy, interests, guilt and/or suicidal thoughts).  

MYTH: I have bipolar disorder but, unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to prevent another manic or depressive episode.  

MEANING: If you know someone with bipolar disorder, or you are living with the disorder yourself, there are things you can do to help prevent either a manic or depressive episode.

As a loved one:

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Educate yourself on the disorder so you can understand (as much as possible) what your friend, partner or family member is experiencing. Having knowledge of the common symptoms of bipolar disorder can help with early detection of relapse.  
  • Be understanding of certain situations that may trigger your loved ones’ symptoms (ex: late night parties, long haul flights).

For yourself:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule (avoid late night parties and shift work).
  • Nourish yourself with healthy foods.
  • Remain compliant with your medication regime prescribed by your psychiatrist. Relapse of symptoms can occur within days of abruptly stopping medications.

Next time you hear the phrase, ‘I’m so bipolar’, please help lessen the stigma by bringing awareness to those surrounding you as to what it is they are actually saying. With increased awareness there will be less shame and more respect for those who are living with bipolar disorder. Together, we can usher in change.

What other mental health issues do you wish were talked about more openly?

Image via Monica Outcalt



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8 comments

  1. Thank you for helping to lessen the stigma around mental “differences” as I like to call them. We are all on a spectrum, some more at one end or the other, and none of it is bad or scary in reality. It is the lack of education around mental health that is the problem. I’m hoping to do some work in this area as well. Thank you for the inspiration and information!

  2. I’m a practicing therapist and I so appreciate this article, it’s excellent, thank you! I too hope this reduces the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

  3. Many of the women in my family suffer from bipolar disorder. Thanks so much for sharing the above–talking about it with a broader community on a blog like this is just one more thing to help fight the stigma. A lot of people don’t realize people with bipolar can have depressive episodes that last several months. Theyre almost twice more likely to commit suicide than those that suffer from depression alone. Between 25% and 50% attempt at least once. It’s *so* important we work to fight misinformation so people feel comfortable seeking the care they need. Lipstickstainsandblackcoffee.com

  4. Cyclothymia would be a good one to introduce. It’s similar…. but not as severe mania or depressive as bipolar disorder, but on the bipolar spectrum. Not to make bipolar any more complicated than it already is…

    I’m glad you mentioned long-haul flights. That’s so stressful while trying to keep a consistent prescription schedule when time zones change so drastically. Every year when I visit my in-laws in Germany they know I’m a little slower to recover from the time change than normal due to the time shift in my prescription doses.

    Thank you for sharing this article. Every little bit helps!

  5. Really loved the insightfulness and honesty in this. To lightly claim or label yourself/someone with a mental illness is so disrespect towards people truly suffering from it.

  6. Beautifully written. Thank you for enlightening readers who may not know about mental health disorders. Truth is, we all know someone who could use more compassion and understanding. Thank you for your work.

  7. This information was a long time coming. It is so time we start understanding what mental illness really is. That is is very physical and not some mystical creature to be feared. I plan on sharing this on my facebook page too.

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