What immediately springs to mind when you hear that someone you don’t know has bipolar disorder? I’d venture to guess that for most, the picture you see is pretty dark and the image you have of the person is not that of a parent, friend, accomplished professional or trusted confidant. Now what if you just learned that someone you know has bipolar disorder? Your picture of the person may have changed in some subtle and not so subtle ways. In both instances, the intricate details of their portrait may have faded, replaced by broad exaggerated strokes resulting in a piece of art that more closely resembles a caricature drawing rather than a work of realism. So, let’s draw the lines between myths and facts of bipolar disorder, a treatable condition marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behavior.
1.) People living with bipolar disorder spend most of their time in mania
People diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience depression exponentially more often than mania (a state of extreme over-activity and arousal with elevated, expansive or irritable mood which requires hospitalization) in their daily lives. Depending upon the type of bipolar, the person may spend 3 to 37 days depressed for each day manic or hypomanic. Some are never manic, but have only infrequent periods of hypomania (periods of less severely activated symptoms of mania) or mixed states (periods when both depressive and hypomanic symptoms are present).
2.) People living with bipolar disorder are often out of control or dangerous
People diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when receiving proper treatment, can and most often do avoid the extremes of either mania or depression. What’s more, people who have missed a single dose of medicine are not instantly going to run out and buy a car, engage in promiscuous or reckless behavior, or become hostile. Though infrequent, when public disruptions do occur, many people with bipolar disorder are unnecessarily incarcerated instead of being given mental health or medical treatment — which puts the individual at greater risk of being a victim of violence.
3.) People living with bipolar disorder don’t want to give up the highs of mania
People diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience mania far more often as unpleasant agitation and irritability rather than pleasant euphoria. And manic symptoms are often mixed with depression. These mixed states can be especially miserable and are a time when people are at increased risk for suicidal ideation or action.
4.) People living with bipolar disorder are unreliable, untrustworthy and unemployable
People diagnosed with bipolar disorder can live extraordinary lives — not only as contributors within the arts where some have found more freedom to share their experience — but in high-level professional roles as community leaders, and as parents, sons, daughters, colleagues and friends. The reason why the public too rarely sees this reality is that people are often afraid to share that they live with bipolar disorder because of stigma and discrimination.
The above facts are not offered to paint a rose-colored view of this complicated condition. Exceptions do exist. The challenges are real. Left untreated, symptoms can be devastating. But extremes are not norms. Knowledge breeds understanding and acceptance. These myths not only lead to discrimination but prevent people from getting the treatment and support they need to live in wellness. We must paint new portraits of people living with bipolar disorder — portraits that reflect the complexity, colors, lights and darks of any person’s life.