Myth buster: bipolar edition

Part of the reason bipolar has such a stigma in 2018 is because it is largely misunderstood. I’ll admit that even I didn’t fully understand it until I was forced to seek out that understanding for myself. And when I did I discovered a lot of myths about bipolar disorder. So here’s 10 myths and misconceptions about bipolar: busted.

10. Bipolar is rare

Actually, about 3% of the adult population is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Who can tell how many there could be undiagnosed. It’s more common than you may think, and chances are you know more than one person who has it.

9. Bipolar means unstable and dysfunctional

There are many successful people who suffer with bipolar disorder. Actually, some of the greatest creative minds in history had or are thought to have had bipolar. Additionally, just because someone is high functioning doesn’t mean they can’t have bipolar. Treatment and lifestyle are very effective at keeping bipolar symptoms manageable, it may be harder to function with it, but definitely not impossible. And living with it only makes us stronger and better at coping with emotion in general.

8. People with bipolar are over dramatic and over emotional

Having bipolar doesn’t mean every emotion a person feels comes from the disorder. We have regular emotions too. Instead of passing off our emotions as over dramatic and products of our illness, listen and trust us when we say they’re very real.

7. Bipolar is the result of poor life decisions and not something you’re born with

Actually, bipolar is hereditary. There are certain genetic markers that appear in people with bipolar, and symptoms of bipolar can appear as early as 6 years old.

6. Bipolar can only be diagnosed in adults

While generally professionals prefer to wait until adulthood to diagnose bipolar disorder, there is no criteria in the DSM that indicates a person much be 18 or older to receive the diagnosis. The reason it’s not commonly diagnosed before age 18 is because other disorders can have similar symptoms during youth. This is why many people with bipolar are originally misdiagnosed with ADHD as teenagers. This does not mean that bipolar’s onset is typically in adulthood, and actually it is suspected that 750,000 children in the US suffer from bipolar disorder.

5. Someone without bipolar can experience manic episodes

Bipolar is the only mental illness that is characterized by mania. To meet a bipolar diagnosis, a person only has to have had one manic episode in their lifetime. And actually, you don’t even have to have experienced depression to have bipolar (this is why they changed the name from “manic depression” to “bipolar” –bipolar isn’t a type of depression). If you don’t have bipolar and think you’re experiencing mania –it’s not mania. If you really think it’s mania, maybe you’ve been misdiagnosed. But first make sure you really understand what mania is.

4. Manic means hyper and happy

Mania can include a euphoric sense of self confidence and invincibility, but that doesn’t mean it’s happy. At least for me, mania seems to amplify all my emotions –positive and negative. Colors are brighter, poetry more moving, sounds louder. Everything becomes larger than life, including myself. It can be a productive time, but ultimately it’s painful and exhausting. It’s so much more than just being “extra happy.” If that was all it was, there’d be no reason to treat it.

3. People with bipolar are bullies

My guess is this myth comes from those who have interacted with someone during a manic episode. During mania, my world focuses inward. I am less aware of the feelings of those around me, and consequently can step over them. This doesn’t mean that I am unkind person. Or a bully. It does mean that I’m sick. Mania can impact relationships in powerful ways, if someone doesn’t understand mania they may misunderstand a friend who is suffering in it.

2. People with bipolar are dangerous

Having bipolar doesn’t make a person any more or less dangerous than anyone else. You might be concerned that a person in a manic episode could become violent, but mania isn’t characterized by violence. Look up the criteria for mania in the DSM, violence is not one of them.

In fact, here is the criteria for a manic episode… (from the DSM V)

(1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
(2) decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
(3) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
(4) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
(5) distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
(6) increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
(7) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)

1. Bipolar means mood swings

The number one myth I hear about bipolar is that bipolar = mood swings. I hear this one A LOT. People say, “Ugh, my husband is being so bipolar,” or, “The weather is bipolar today.” This is a huge issue and perpetuates the stigma against bipolar. Bipolar is episodic. Meaning the mood changes last at the very shortest a few days to a week, and at the longest can last months. You can’t be manic for one day. That’s not mania. Manic episodes usually lasts weeks, and for many people can last months. Depressive episodes can last even longer. Someone who rapidly goes from one mood to another is not suffering from bipolar –it’s something else. Perhaps borderline personality disorder. Bipolar is episodic. Characterized by episodes of mania, episodes of depression (usually), and episodes of “normal” in between. The pattern is different for every person. For me, my mania usually lasts about a month –my longest was a “mixed” episode (mania and depression at the same time) that lasted 4 months. I usually experience a depressive episode immediately following my manic episodes, which last quite a while. Episodic. Bipolar. Is. Episodic. I don’t want to hear you call a moody teenager or rapidly changing weather patterns “bipolar” ever again (that includes you Katy Perry).

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