Misconceptions of bipolar disorder

Busting the myths about Bipolar disorder

There are lots of myths about Bipolar disorder. Unfortunately many invite stigma towards people living with Bipolar, potentially limiting the support, understanding and treatment they receive.

Because of this it’s important to know the facts. Here’s a few of the most common myths about Bipolar disorder.

Myth 1: Bipolar disorder is just mania

Bipolar disorder includes a wide-range of mood disturbances, from mania and hypomania to depression.

Mania is a state of significantly elevated mood that results in severe disruption to daily life, sometimes involving psychotic symptoms. Hypomania is similar, but not as intense or disruptive as mania. Depression is a state of persistent low mood and decrease in energy and activity.

When any of these symptoms are present for a specific period of time, they are termed an episode. A person with Bipolar disorder can experience one, or a combination of these mood symptoms during an episode.

Myth 2: There is only one type of Bipolar disorder

According to the widely used manual for mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), there are four types of Bipolar disorder, all distinguished by different experiences and intensities of mood disturbance:

  • Bipolar I – manic episode
  • Bipolar II – hypomanic and depressive episodes
  • Cyclothymic Disorder – hypomanic and depressive symptoms
  • Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – bipolar-like mood disturbance that does not fit the pattern of the other diagnoses.

Myth 3: Bipolar disorder is rare

Did you know every year more people experience Bipolar disorder than cancer?

It’s estimated that Bipolar affects approximately one in 50 Australians a year. That’s approximately 360,000 people. To put this in perspective, all forms of cancer affect around 98,000 Australians per year, (around one in 250 people), and depressive disorders affect around 1,000,000 Australians per year (around one in 20 people).

Myth 4: People who have Bipolar disorder are just moody

People with Bipolar disorder do experience highs (mania/hypomania) and lows (depression), however these moods are different from the everyday fluctuations we all experience. The highs and lows in Bipolar disorder are extreme, often occur out of context, can last for several days, weeks or months. The experience can be very debilitating, sometimes even requiring short stays in hospital. The World Health Organisation estimates Bipolar disorder to be one of the leading causes of disability in the world, and the lifetime risk of death by suicide in Bipolar disorder is around 15 percent.

Myth 5: People with Bipolar disorder are manic all the time

Most of the time, it’s more common for someone with Bipolar disorder to experience depressive symptoms, or few symptoms at all. States of mania and hypomania are comparatively rare. In fact, because depressive episodes are more frequent, it’s common for Bipolar disorder to be misdiagnosed as depression.

Myth 6: Mania is enjoyable, productive, or fun

When people are experiencing mania, they often feel very good, have lots of energy, and can go without sleep for long periods of time. While this might sound great, mania can also be a very uncomfortable and unpleasant experience characterised by irritability, restlessness and feeling out of control.

During a manic episode, people can sometimes take big risks or do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do which might have damaging effects on their career, finances, reputation or relationships. Sometimes mania can be accompanied by psychotic symptoms, which can be very frightening and distressing.

Myth 7: Medication is the only treatment for Bipolar disorder

Medication is often the first line treatment for Bipolar disorder, however, psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), family-focussed therapy, and interpersonal and social rhythm therapy have been shown to help minimise symptoms and reduce the risk of future episodes.

A combination of psychological treatments and medication have the most effective and enduring outcomes. Some experts recommend self-help strategies such as education, sleep hygiene, early warning signs, symptom monitoring, meditative and reflective practices, and maintaining good social support.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of Bipolar disorder, it’s important to consult a doctor or mental health professional. You can also contact the SANE Help Centre for information and support.

More to read

  • SANE Bipolar Disorder factsheet and guide
  • SANE Treatments for mental illness factsheet

Other useful links

  • The mental health of Australians 2
  • The global burden of disease
  • What works for people with bipolar disorder?
  • Self‐management strategies used by ‘high functioning’ individuals with bipolar disorder

Mental Health

Author: Mood Disorders Association of BC

Myth: Bipolar disorder cannot be diagnosed as easily as physical illness.

Fact: Bipolar disorder can be diagnosed similarly to physical illnesses. While there are no physical tests that can reveal the disorder, the diagnosis of bipolar illness is based on standard criteria. An accurate diagnosis of a bipolar illness is made by using the tools (or psychiatric laboratory tests) of a medical and psychiatric history, self-reported symptoms, observable behavior, input from friends and family, family medical history and specific psychiatric rating scales.

Myth: Children do not get bipolar disorder.

Fact: Bipolar disorder can occur in children as young as age six. It is more likely to affect children of parents who have bipolar disorder. Children tend to have very fast mood swings between depression and mania many times during the day whereas adults tend to experience intense moods for weeks or months at a time. Note—Bipolar disorder can best be diagnosed after examination of historical behaviour patterns. Parents should attempt to get independent verification and consider carefully any such diagnosis of a very young child.

Myth: It is impossible to help someone with bipolar disorder.

Fact: Bipolar disorder can be effectively treated and managed. More than 30% of bipolar patients can expect full and complete recovery while another 40% can expect a very marked reduction in their symptoms. Individuals can go into remission during various periods of their life. Successful management depends on many factors including education about the illness, good communication with professionals involved in your care, a good support system (family and friends) and adhering to your treatment plan.

Myth: Bipolar disorder is a figment of one’s imagination.

Fact: Bipolar disorder is a treatable brain disorder that is real and can cause a lot of suffering, especially if it is not well managed. Individuals cannot just snap out of it! Recovery takes time and hard work.

Myth: People who have bipolar disorder cannot work.

Fact: Proper medical treatment and good support enables most people (more than 75%) with bipolar to work and be successful.

Myth: Bipolar disorder is caused by a personal weakness or character flaw.

Fact: Bipolar disorder is a medical condition just like diabetes or any other health condition. People with bipolar disorder cannot “just pull themselves together” and get better. Treatment is necessary.

Myth: If you have bipolar disorder, you are ill all the time.

Fact: Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of highs and lows. In most people, these episodes are separated by periods of stability. People may go for months, sometimes even years without an episode by managing the illness well.

Myth: Once bipolar disorder is under control, people can stop their medications.

Fact: Bipolar disorder is an illness that most often requires people to continue taking medications, even if they are symptom free. Medication can act in a preventative way, helping people to avoid relapses. You should always consult with your doctor before stopping any medications.

Myth: Alcoholism and drug abuse cause bipolar disorder.

Fact: People with bipolar disorder are more likely to experience problems with the use of alcohol or other drugs but the drugs do not cause the disorder. People with bipolar disorder may use alcohol or street drugs to make themselves feel better (self-medicate) or as an escape from their problems.

About the author

The Mood Disorders Association of BC is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. The organization is dedicated to providing support, education, and hope for recovery for those living with a mood disorder or other mental illness. For more, visit www.mdabc.net or call 1-604-873-0103.

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Common Misconceptions About Bipolar Disorder

Unfortunately, much of what people think they know about bipolar disorder is not accurate. It’s easy to absorb bipolar misconceptions, especially given the extreme behaviors portrayed on TV and in movies. But it’s important to learn the facts.

Bipolar: Myth vs. Truth

Myth: Bipolar disorder is not a real illness.

Truth: Bipolar disorder is a highly treatable, but cyclical, genetic illness that can be controlled. “The perception should be in the same vein as other chronic illnesses,” says Suresh Sureddi, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a director of Lifepath Systems, a community mental health clinic in Plano, Texas. Dr. Sureddi explains that it helps to remember that bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, like congestive heart failure or diabetes, which sometimes results in patients having to be hospitalized and needing ongoing treatment.

Myth: Once you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, your life as you’ve known it is over, and you won’t be able to achieve your goals.

Truth: Although there is no cure for bipolar, many people with the disorder are able to control their condition. “I can’t tell you how devastating it was to believe my life was over,” says Larry Fricks, vice president of peer services for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Fricks was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1984 and later profiled in Strong at the Broken Places, by Richard M. Cohen. “But you don’t have to have your life taken over by a mental illness,” Fricks says. “You’re still a person with hopes and dreams and you can get those. Bipolar disorder has a very high recovery rate if you are proactive about managing your illness.”

Myth: People with bipolar disorder cannot keep a job or serve in a position of authority.

Truth: A person’s job performance does not have to be affected by bipolar disorder. “A lot of people with bipolar disorder hold high-functioning jobs. They become lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers,” Sureddi says. By managing bipolar disorder with medications and positive lifestyle habits, such as adhering to regular schedules and sleep habits, they are able to live very stable and productive lives.

Myth: Bipolar disorder defines who you are.

Truth: “I have bipolar disorder. I am not bipolar. There’s a big difference,” says Kristin Finn, the author of Bipolar and Pregnant, a mental health advocate, and a member of the speakers bureau of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Finn was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1979 and is the mother of a 17-year-old who also has bipolar disorder. “Just as my next door neighbor may have cancer but wouldn’t say ‘I am cancer.’ I think it’s important not to define yourself by the condition.”

Myth: If someone has bipolar disorder, all their moods are a product of the condition.

Truth: People with bipolar disorder have moods and feelings just like everyone else, and their moods are not always connected to the illness. Sureddi says family members sometimes think that once a loved one has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the condition cannot be stabilized, so any misspoken word or perceived misdeed is blamed on the fact that that person has bipolar disorder. Finn agrees, adding that her daughter feels that she’s not allowed to just have a bad day. When she’s upset about something, those around her assume she’s having a bipolar episode. It’s important to remember that that’s not always the case.

Myth: Everybody who has bipolar disorder has wide mood swings, going from very depressed to super manic and out of control.

Truth: While that range of mood symptoms does exist, not all people living with bipolar disorder experience symptoms that way. Some people have predominantly depressive episodes, with very few, mild symptoms of mania, called hypomania. Sureddi says people can have bipolar disorder symptoms for 10 or 12 years before they are diagnosed, because the symptoms of mania are not prominent and are therefore missed.

Myth: Once you’re feeling better, you can stop taking your bipolar disorder medications.

Truth: When people living with bipolar disorder decide they’ll be fine without medications and stop treatment, the mood cycles start again. “Medications are necessary to maintain an active lifestyle,” says Sureddi. “Just as with other chronic illnesses, bipolar disorder requires ongoing treatment, without which symptoms only get worse rather than better.”

The more you know about bipolar disorder, the more you can help stop the spread of these misconceptions.

“What you believe about mental illness may be more disabling than the illness itself,” Fricks says. If you would like more information about bipolar disorder, visit the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. You can also find more in the Everyday Health Guide to Living Well With Bipolar Disorder.

Though we might have come a long way in recent years in reducing the stigma around mental health conditions, there’s still a long way to go – especially when it comes to properly understanding certain conditions, like bipolar.

To help with this, we spoke to Rethink Mental Illness and BUPA about the remaining bipolar misconceptions which need to be eradicated:

1. That all bipolar is the same

Firstly, there are two types of primary bipolar diagnoses: bipolar I and bipolar II, and Rethink says “everyone with bipolar disorder will have different levels of symptoms”. The NHS adds that some people might only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime, while others might have more.

Bipolar is “traditionally signified by depressive lows and manic highs”, Rethink says. “Type 1 is typified by higher levels of mania and the existence of psychosis so this is usually more severe than type 2.”

2. That it’s a personality disorder

It’s not a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. It is instead a disorder that primarily affects moods.

3. That it just means ‘bad mood swings’

Though it may be a mood disorder, it is not a case of simply having mood swings – which, let’s be honest, we all get.

“We all experience good and bad moods from time to time, but for someone with bipolar, mood changes are often more severe, varying from excitement and elation (known as mania) to depression and despair,” Pablo Vandenabeele, Bupa’s clinical director of mental health says. “Each mood may last several weeks or there might be long stable periods. As with all mental health issues, mood changes should be taken seriously and not oversimplified or stigmatised as just ‘mood swings’.”

Getty Images

What is also damaging is when people use the word ‘bipolar’ to describe a mood swing, similar to the way people have long used ‘OCD’ to describe tidiness, when the condition is so much more complex than that.

Eleanor Segall, a writer and blogger who has bipolar I, explained to Cosmopolitan.com/uk why using the phrase “you’re so bipolar” is incredibly problematic: “Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, but we don’t all have ups and downs with our moods constantly and we don’t all rapid cycle between moods either. To use this phrase is ignorant and belittles the condition.”

4. That being really happy is one of the symptoms

The ‘manic high’ symptom of bipolar doesn’t equate to being really, really happy, Rethink explains.

“It involves feeling constantly restless and an inability to feel calm. It can lead to delusional thoughts (like feeling invulnerable) and reckless behaviour that puts the person at risk of endangering themselves.”

Vandenabeele adds that the most widely-held misconceptions around the illness revolve around the manic stage of the condition.

“Many people believe that all bipolar patients experience euphoric highs,” he says. “But, in reality, the manic phase can often express itself as overconfidence, irritability or confusion.”

5. That you’re ill all the time

Eleanor only experienced psychosis, where her delusions made her lose touch with reality, for a few months before it then passed. She’s since had long periods of feeling fine – a diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re cast to a lifetime of illness.

Getty Images

“Most people with bipolar I or bipolar II disorder can stay well for long periods on medication, with a good support network and therapeutic plan,” she says. “Those who do not take medication and need to, may get unwell. However, most of the time, and in my own case, you can go for long periods between severe mental illness.”

6. That all medication comes with bad side effects

Some anti-depressant medication can come with side effects, yes. But this is not the case with all medication, and quite often it comes down to the individual or through a trial and error process to see which medicine works best for you.

Eleanor says that her anti-psychotic medication came with some side effects but ultimately, it meant she could get better. Remember to talk to your doctor or psychiatrist to find the right medication for you.

7. That it stops you from living a normal life

This, of course, is absolutely not true. Just like with any illness, if it’s managed and you have the right medication and care, you can lead a great, normal, regular life.

Eleanor is living proof that this isn’t the case, as is Mariah Carey, of course.

“I still got my A levels, went to university, travelled and I work now as a freelance journalist,” Eleanor says. “There is a misconception that having bipolar disorder means you cannot live a normal, fulfilled life. People think that you will not be able to work, achieve academically, have a family or hold down a relationship. This misconception is false. The disorder affects everyone differently and many do go on to achieve and be successful in what they want to do.”

Related Story

For more information on bipolar disorder, visit Rethink Mental Illness

Olivia Blair Digital News Editor Olivia is ELLE’s Digital News Editor covering pop culture, royal, lifestyle and women’s news and features.

Misconceptions about bipolar disorder explained

Published: November, 2007

Portrayals of bipolar disorder seem to be cropping up everywhere—in the news, in movies, and on television. The November 2007 issue of the Harvard Health Letter dispels some myths and misunderstandings about this condition.

Bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose, and it often gets confused with other mental illnesses. Because mania is the hallmark of bipolar disorder, the depressive episodes sometimes get overlooked. The Harvard Health Letter notes that people with bipolar disorder typically spend much more time depressed than manic. In fact, years of depression may go by between manic episodes.

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When you hear the phrase “bipolar disorder”, what’s the first thing you think of? For too many people, they think that people with bipolar are crazy, or that it’s not a “real” mental illness. However, bipolar disorder IS a real illness, despite the misconceptions behind it. Here are some common misconceptions about bipolar disorder.

It’s just mood swings.
While the symptoms of bipolar disorder come across as just mood swings, the reality is quite different. For example, many individuals don’t experience mania and depression in a cyclical way – meaning that someone can go through a depressed state, come back to normal, and then dip into depression again before experiencing mania.

People experiencing mood swings generally have some control over them. Those with bipolar disorder, when they are in a manic or depressed state, do not always have control over themselves. Also, mood swings last for a few days at most, whereas someone with bipolar can be in a manic state for weeks to months at a time before coming back down.

Bipolar only affects your mood.
While bipolar disorder is often considered a mood disorder, it affects every part of an individual’s life. For example, when someone is in a manic state, they might only be able to get 1-3 hours of sleep every night because they just can’t “turn off” the racing thoughts. People in a depressed state can have their eating patterns affected, either turning away food or eating for comfort instead of nutrition. In both cases, it affects how someone approaches life’s problems, so it can not only change the person’s life, but others they interact with, too!

Bipolar can’t be treated.
While there’s no cure for bipolar, it can absolutely be managed through a variety of therapies. Depending on the severity of the disorder, someone can even self-regulate without any medications.

Treatment options include psychotherapy, self-management, and medications. Psychotherapy can be useful in helping an individual identify their triggers and redirect their energy in healthier ways. Self-management includes following a healthy diet and exercise program, and joining

Being in a manic state means you’re just really happy.
The manic stage of bipolar can seem to onlookers as just happiness, but it’s a little more complicated. It’s best to think about it as removing inhibitions. People in a manic state often will do impulsive things, such as going on a shopping spree, that they regret when they come out of the manic state. For some people, these decisions can become dangerous to their wellbeing, such as substance use or daredevil activities.

You can’t live a normal life with bipolar disorder.
False! Nearly 3% of Americans have bipolar disorder, and many lead a normal life. Just like many mental health conditions, if managed properly, there’s no limitations on someone’s outlook. In fact, treatment usually encourages joining different clubs or groups, healthy diet and exercise – which are good for everyone!

While bipolar disorder seems like a scary mental illness, it’s treatable with proper attention and care. If you or someone you know has bipolar disorder, take some time and learn about what the disorder is, and how it can affect different people. The more you know, the better you can help.

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