The 5 Things We Need to Stop Thinking About Bipolar Disorder
Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.
I first became educated on the topic of bipolar disorder when I was finally diagnosed with bipolar II at the age of 37. I have struggled with mental health issues for as long as I can remember, but like so many others, I was misdiagnosed for years as having depression and anxiety. It wasn’t until I had a complete mental breakdown after (what I now know was) a severe hypomania cycle that culminated in destroying my career. My husband insisted I see a psychiatrist, rather than my family doctor, and thus began a two and a half year journey to a proper diagnosis and a medication regimen that actually worked.
I won’t lie… it was a long, hard road. I was out of work for quite some time, and even when I went back to work (in a part-time retail job), it was far from smooth sailing. I have never fully recovered, and will forever be changed by my experiences, but I’ve come a long way. When I was finally diagnosed it was a relief. I finally had a name to put with the symptoms and an explanation for what was “wrong” with me.
While others might try to hide something like this, I’ve been very open about my diagnosis. There is a horrible stigma attached to all forms of mental illness; the only chance we have to dispel the myths and misconceptions is by talking about it and attempting to educate people who don’t have the experience or education to know differently.
With the rash of mass shootings lately, there’s been a lot of focus on mental illnesses, bipolar disorder included. When horrible events like these occur, there is rarely a clear and simple explanation. As a result, the blame overwhelmingly falls on mental illness. Anyone who committed a mass shooting must have done so because they were mentally ill. Even the President says so, so it must be true. There’s no other possible explanation, right? Wrong. So wrong.
We know what bipolar is, but in the spirit of education, here’s what it isn’t.
1) All bipolar disorders are not created equal.
There are several variations of bipolar disorder, and a range of various symptoms within them. Most people hear “bipolar” and think of bipolar I. This is where moods cycle between extreme manic highs and depressive lows. A person in a manic phase may feel like they can conquer the world. A person living with bipolar II, on the other hand, is likely to experience depression much more often than alternative “hypomania.” Rather than euphoric highs, bipolar II patients experience phases of extreme irritability. There are way too many variations (and variations within those variations!) to mention, but the point is, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” diagnosis.
2) Bipolar disorder should not be diagnosed or treated by your family doctor.
I recently saw a Facebook post that said: “Went to the nurse practitioner today… apparently I have a messed up knee and I’m bipolar.” Like so many others, I was treated for my symptoms by my family doctor for the majority of my adult life. This is likely why it took so long to get an accurate diagnosis and get on medication that actually worked for me. General practitioners mean well, but the fact is that they do not have extensive training in mental health disorders and the medications available to treat them. Not only can this result in a misdiagnosis, it can also lead to potentially dangerous medication errors. Psychiatrists are trained in these medications… they know how to properly wean on and off them as needed, and what medications can be used in combination with another. Just as there is not a “one size fits all” diagnosis, there is not one medication that works for everyone.
3) The word “bipolar” should not be thrown around lightly.
People have mood swings… everyone does. I can’t count the times I have heard co-workers dismiss moody customers as being “bipolar.” “He was so nice yesterday, and today he’s being a jerk… he has to be bipolar.” Ummm… no. He doesn’t. “I am so crabby today… I swear I’m bipolar.” Ummm… no. You’re not. Stop throwing the term around like it means nothing, because while it may not mean anything to you, it means something very serious to others.
4) People with bipolar disorder are not walking time bombs.
I recently read an interaction online between two people who were arguing the merits of gun control. One of the comments stated there needed to be mental health background checks before firearms could be purchased due to all of the “bipolar and depression peeps” who should not be allowed to buy guns. Needless to say, I politely expressed my outrage at the ignorance and insensitivity surrounding that comment. Regardless of your political position, to imply that people with depression or bipolar disorder should not be permitted to purchase handguns is simply ridiculous. It implies we are not only somehow inferior to others, but that, if given a weapon, we would automatically be inclined to use them against others because we are mentally ill.
5) People with bipolar and other mental illnesses are not more likely to commit violent crimes.
This country has experienced a rash of mass shootings lately, and in an effort to understand these unimaginable events, people overwhelmingly jump to the conclusion that the person must have committed the crime because they were mentally ill. Even President Trump has made the comment that we don’t have a gun problem, we have a mental health problem. I’m not going to argue that any one person who commits a crime of this nature doesn’t have a mental illness, but it also doesn’t mean they do. There is an endless list of possible motivating factors… jumping straight to an uneducated, uninformed “diagnosis” of mental illness is ignorant, irresponsible and contributes to the stigma we so desperately need to put an end to.
Educate yourself. Educate others. Spread the word and help end the stigma that surrounds mental health in this country. We have a responsibility to do so.
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Getty Images photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz