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Bipolar disorder affects as many as three percent of adults in the United States, yet it's still a highly misunderstood illness, both by those who suffer from it and those who do not. That's why it's important to understand the facts about this illness.
Even as stigma surrounding mental illness steadily lifts, damaging myths pervade our society. These myths and misconceptions about illnesses such as bipolar disorder can be very harmful to those who suffer from them. Beyond the daily struggle of living with such a disorder, erroneous beliefs and expectations from those around you can make managing it much harder. Because of that, here are some of the most prevalent myths about bipolar disorder that you may have heard.
Myth #1: That mania and hypomania make you really happy.
One of the most damaging myths about bipolar disorder has to do with manic or hypomanic cycles. Bipolar disorder is characterized as a mood disorder in which chemical imbalances have two effects: depressive episodes, and manic or hypomanic episodes. Many people believe that manic episodes are, essentially, the opposite of depressive episodes; that a person in a manic cycle is made extremely happy by the disorder. From the outside, they might appear so, but this is not the case. Manic episodes manifest themselves differently for every person, but some of the most common effects are feelings of high energy, lack of inhibition, and irritability. Carrie Fisher, who spoke and wrote openly about her struggle with bipolar disorder, once offered an explanation of the disorder to a child: "It is a kind of virus of the brain that makes you go very fast or feel very sad." Those with bipolar disorder have overwhelming agreed, identifying with the assessment of manic episodes as feeling "fast," but not necessarily "happy."
Myth #2: Bipolar disorder is curable.
One of the wonderful things about recent changes in public conversation regarding mental illness is that people are becoming ever more comfortable seeking help, diagnoses, and treatment. Such conversation can also breed myths about bipolar disorder and other mood disorders, because in fact, bipolar disorder is not curable. People living with bipolar disorder are living with it for life. This means that just because someone has found an effective treatment and learned to manage their illness, does not mean that they are cured, and will never suffer from its effects. So it's important to remember that, while often manageable with medication, therapy and other forms of treatment for bipolar disorder are really the only assured ways to continuing to manage this brain disorder.
Myth #3: Bipolar medication makes you a zombie.
Another deeply damaging myth about bipolar disorder is the idea that medication turns you into a zombie, or somehow changes the best parts of you, dulls you. This line of thinking is especially prevalent amongst creative groups, where there is a dangerous attitude regarding mental illness as something that inspires creativity and art. But anyone managing bipolar disorder with the right set of medications and treatments will tell you that mood stabilizers do not drain you of your passion or creativity: They allow you to make use of it by helping you apply yourself, helping you get out of bed and think more clearly, and helping you be more excited and interested in life. Sure, some medications are not for everyone, but there's no harm in trying different medications to find the ones that work best for you.
Myth #4: Bipolar and BPD are the same thing.
Although this myth is rooted in a simple and understandable misunderstanding, it's still something that anyone with either illness wants cleared up: BPD is not an abbreviation for bipolar disorder. Rather, BPD stands for Borderline Personality Disorder, which is, as the name suggests, a personality disorder rather than a mood disorder. To further complicate matters, many symptoms of bipolar disorder are shared by BPD, including depressive phases and the development of unhealthy relationships, but they are actually completely different illnesses.
Myth #5: Bipolar disorder is the same for everyone.
Another pervasive myth about bipolar disorder is that it's the same for everyone, just a certain set of symptoms. In fact, bipolar disorder effects every person differently. But even more concretely than that, there are two major, different types of bipolar disorder: Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. The main difference between the two is that people living with Bipolar 1 experience mania, while people living with Bipolar 2 experience hypomania. The difference between these two kinds of episodes is mainly that mania tends to be more extreme than hypomania. Both symptoms often manifest themselves in behaviors such as promiscuity and substance abuse, and symptoms like irritability, but mania may take these to a further extreme, and can also include delusions of invincibility which can lead to even more reckless, even life-threatening behaviors.
Myth #6: Bipolar disorder is rare.
Living with bipolar disorder can feel lonely and isolated for some. In part, this is because of the strain it can put on one's relationships. But more than this, many feel that they're alone in their struggle with mental health, and that people with bipolar disorder are rare outsiders. But in fact, somewhere in the realm of three percent of adults in the United States suffer from it. Of course, with this kind of mental health problem, it can be difficult to gauge an exact number or percentage, as the number of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder is likely much smaller than the number who actually suffer from it. However, even within a wider range of two to four percent, that's a significant population. If that sounds like a small number to you, here's a reference: Between two to six percent of the US population, a roughly similar proportion, have red hair. Now, sure, red hair isn't considered common the way brown hair is, but it's also certainly not considered extremely rare.
Myth #7: Bipolar disorder makes it impossible to have healthy relationships.
People with bipolar disorder have to face a number of obstacles in their lives, not just the chemically-induced mood changes they experience. Another major issue they face is the bipolar relationship; periods of strong irritability, or sudden loss of interest in activity, can make it hard to navigate friendships and relationships in a normal way. None of this means that living with bipolar disorder means living without positive, meaningful relationships though. Open communication about one's needs and wants in a relationship is the key to success for anyone—for those living with bipolar disorder, this communication may simply look a little different, as one's needs and wants might sometimes be different.
Myth #8: "Bipolar" is another way to describe mood swings.
One of the most frustrating myths about bipolar disorder, especially for those who actually suffer from it, is the idea that "bipolar" is just another term for mood swings or rapidly changing your mind. You hear this in regular speech all the time: "Well my mom said I could go, but then last night just out of nowhere decided I couldn't. She's so bipolar." But in fact, bipolar disorder is not about rapid mood swings or changes. In order to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, people must have depressive and manic episodes that last from a week to multiple months. Occasionally, people with bipolar disorder might experience "rapid cycling," but this is not a major characteristic symptom of bipolar disorder, and the illness is really defined by these more long-term episodes of depression and mania or hypomania.
Myth #9: Bipolar disorder means you're always manic or depressed.
There's so much talk about the episodes of depression and mania in bipolar disorder that many people mistakenly believe that the illness is simply a switching between these two, and that a person with bipolar disorder is always either manic or depressed. This is not the case. Even untreated, those with bipolar disorder often experience periods of changing frequency and length where they are neither depressed or manic. With proper treatment, these periods may even become the norm, and the depressive or manic episodes may be much shorter and milder. The disorder manifests itself differently in everyone, and everyone responds differently to treatment and life events, but many people who suffer from it have long periods of relative stability in between episodes.
Myth #10: Managing bipolar disorder only takes place in a doctor's office.
Treating major mental health disorders should always involve a trusted doctor who can help find the right treatment. However, of the myths about bipolar disorder you should reconsider, the importance of mental health professionals does not negate the importance of the kinds of "treatment" that takes place outside the doctor's office. Self care comes first, and efforts to pursue this self care to the best of one's ability is often crucial to the success of any treatment plan. This can be difficult for many, especially at first, but things like eating well, getting exercise, and seeking out positive relationships are often the most important factors in one's outcome. For many doctors, this is the goal of treatment: to help people with bipolar disorder get to a point where they are able to engage in these kinds of activities again, because they play a truly crucial role in the management of any mental health issue.