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7 Myths Surrounding Bipolar Disorder and the Facts Behind Them

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While most of us have heard of bipolar disorder before, there are still a number of misconceptions around this surprisingly prevalent mental illness. Unfortunately, these misunderstandings can often lead to stigma toward people experiencing bipolar disorder, which may have an impact on the understanding and support they receive.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

So, let’s take a look at some of the common myths surrounding bipolar disorder and the facts behind them.

Myth 1. Bipolar disorder is just mood swings.

“Weren’t you just sad a minute ago? I swear, you’re so bipolar!”

The idea that bipolar disorder and being moody are synonymous is a widely held misconception. Feeling sad, happy, angry, irritable, etc. are all common emotions that may arise at different times whether they are within the context of an external event or a purely internal state. Mania and depressive episodes, however, are extreme changes in not just mood but energy, behavior, activity and sleep. Furthermore, “mania” must last at least one week to be considered a manic episode and a depressive episode for at least a two-week period.

Myth 2. There is only one type of bipolar disorder.

Many people have a specific idea of what someone who has bipolar disorder looks like. However, in reality, there are actually four distinct bipolar disorders according to the DSM-5.

Bipolar 1: Characterized by one or more manic episodes and one or more depressive episodes.

Bipolar 2: Characterized by depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes (a less severe type of mania).

Cyclothymic disorder: Several periods of exhibiting hypomanic symptoms and depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years without meeting the criteria for a hypomanic and depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder not otherwise specified: Symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not fit the diagnostic criteria of any of the other three disorders.

Myth 3. People with bipolar disorder constantly switch between mania and depression.

Many people envision a person experiencing bipolar disorder constantly fluctuating between brief but numerous periods of mania and depression throughout their day. As mentioned in Myth 1, however, manic episodes must last at least a week and depressive episodes at least two weeks (with the exception of some types of rapid cycling bipolar disorder). Furthermore, people with bipolar disorder often experience long periods of a stable, tranquil mood state known as “euthymia.” This is a mood state that is neither manic nor depressive; however, it can still be distinguished from healthy control groups.

Myth 4. They’re faking it.

“She’s probably just faking it… I bet she could control herself if she really wanted to.”

This is also an unfortunately common belief regarding bipolar disorder amongst the general public. In reality, bipolar disorder is a widely-recognized mental illness with both genetic and environmental predispositions. On a neurological level, the emotional centers of the brain such as the amygdala appear to have excessive activity while the frontal cortex which assists in impulse control, judgment and problem solving/decision-making skills appears to have too little. Furthermore, twin studies suggest that if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other is more likely to develop it too. Stressful or traumatic life events or alcohol and drug use may also be a trigger for bipolar disorder in a person who already has a predisposition.

Myth 5. Medication is the only treatment option.

While the research does support the use of medication as an effective treatment option for bipolar disorder, it is by no means the only treatment option that should be considered. Psychotherapy can be an integral part of the treatment process and provide people with valuable skills to challenge inappropriate negative thought patterns and develop coping strategies to deal with their overwhelming emotions. Psychoeducation may also be useful in developing a greater understanding around one’s disorder, recognizing triggers and responding appropriately.

Myth 6. People always act “crazy” when they’re experiencing mania.

Many people believe “mania” refers to “crazy,” erratic and highly risky behavior, and while this may be true for some people, it is important to remember that mania does not look the same for everyone experiencing bipolar disorder. For others, a manic episode may involve increased talkativeness, increased goal-directed activity or restlessness, being easily distracted or an increase in self-esteem.

Myth 7. People with bipolar disorder should not be trusted.

This is a completely irrational and false belief, not only around bipolar disorder but also many other mental illnesses. Granted, when one is experiencing a manic episode they may become more erratic or unpredictable than usual; however, manic episodes do not last forever and many people with bipolar disorder learn how to manage their symptoms as they progress through their recovery journey. In reality, if these people receive the support and help they require, they become more than capable of being just as reliable as any other person.

If you feel you or someone you know may be experiencing bipolar disorder, it is important you reach out to your GP or mental health professional for support. While bipolar disorder can be a challenging mental illness to live with, by engaging with the proper treatment and support – both formal and informal – many people with this disorder live productive and meaningful lives.

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Originally published: December 31, 2018
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