Mental illnesses are frequently misunderstood in our culture. To make matters worse, the media has been known to glamourize mental disorders to “make good TV,” rather than realistically portray what life is like actually living with one. TV, movies, and social media seem to misrepresent bipolar disorder more often than some other mental illnesses, leaving harmful negative stereotypes about it in their wake. Dangerously, these stereotypes and misconceptions can prevent those who live with bipolar disorder from getting the help they need for their mental health.
The best way to combat the less-than-truthful portrayals of bipolar disorder in our world is to normalize the truth: let’s talk about bipolar disorders as they truly are rather than as they may seem. Now, it’s time to bust some common myths about bipolar disorder!
DISCLAIMER: For the purpose of this article we will typically refer to bipolar disorder as a singular disorder, however, it is important to note that there are two distinct types of Bipolar Disorder: Type I and Type II.
People with bipolar disorder are always moody
Bipolar disorder is characterized by fluctuating periods of major depression and mania (or a milder form of mania known as hypomania, depending on the diagnosis). However, the switch from one of these mood states to the other rarely happens as rapidly as many are led to believe. In fact, each mood state can last from days to weeks to months. Experiencing mood swings throughout the day (such as feeling ecstatic one moment and devastated the next) is not the same thing as having bipolar disorder for many reasons, and this is one of them.
Mania is always fun
While some parts of mania can perhaps feel “fun” at the time, manic episodes can be highly dangerous and often cause a manic person to behave impulsively or recklessly. People who are having a manic episode aren’t always happy-go-lucky, either; it is also common for some to feel intensely and disproportionately irritable. It is important not to assume that people in manic states are always having fun or that they are always safe – mania causes people to behave in out-of-character and often risky (financially, physically, or sexually) ways. It is not uncommon for someone in a manic state to at some point either find themselves hospitalized or in jail.
Children can’t have bipolar disorder
People of any age can have bipolar disorder, although diagnosing it in very young children is relatively rare. Unfortunately, because bipolar disorder shares many of the same symptoms as other mental illnesses (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)), children are frequently misdiagnosed.
Having bipolar disorder is a life sentence to misery
Having bipolar disorder is just one part of someone’s entire identity and by no means has to define their life. Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that, when addressed effectively with medication and/or therapy, individuals can continue to build and maintain happy, healthy lives. There is zero shame in taking medication for your brain – if it makes sense to take an antibiotic to cure a bacterial infection like strep throat, it makes sense to take medication that can help adjust your brain chemistry to get it back to normal levels.
If you can’t manage to take your medication every day, you’ll never get better
For many, remembering to take daily medication is a trying feat. For others, it is a simple part of their routine. Luckily, more flexible options are becoming available for bipolar disorder, such as once-monthly or twice-monthly shots. If you (or someone you know) have bipolar disorder and struggle to take your medication on a daily basis, it might be worth talking to your doctor about other options.
It is easy to diagnose
On the contrary, bipolar disorders can be particularly difficult to diagnose as many of their symptoms overlap with other disorders, like Major Depressive Disorder. It is also commonly misdiagnosed as substance abuse and addiction (since some of those living with bipolar disorder may use substances to help cope with their symptoms), schizophrenia, or anxiety in adults, and as ADHD in children. People living with bipolar disorder often also struggle with ADHD or other additional mental disorders at the same time, which can complicate both diagnosis and treatment.
It only happens to the disadvantaged
Bipolar disorder is a biological disorder: although it can be genetically linked, no specific groups of people are immune to developing bipolar disorder. Differences in the rate of bipolar disorder between people of different socioeconomic groups are likely best explained by a lack of accessible health care and the impact of poverty on developing children rather than some sort of “predisposition.” There is absolutely nothing about someone’s traits, educational attainment, skin colour, or social status that determines whether or not they will be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is not reserved for the underprivileged.
It’s important to remember that struggling with bipolar disorder does not mean that you are weak or that there is something inherently “wrong” with you. If you are in treatment but don’t seem to be improving, it likely means that some of your needs are not being met properly and that some adjustments in therapy and/or medication may be necessary. Bipolar disorder can sometimes be tricky to address initially and you may not find what works for you right away, however, once you find the right balance between medication and therapy, there will be one less thing standing in the way of you living your fullest, healthiest life. Finally, we can all be mental health advocates in our daily lives by refraining from throwing around the word “bipolar” as a replacement for “moody,” and by continuing to educate ourselves and speak up when opportunity rises.