Not everything you’ve heard about bipolar disorder is true. Learn what’s real about the disorder so you can better understand it.
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: People with bipolar disorder do not have a real illness.
Truth: Bipolar disorder is a highly treatable, but cyclical, genetic illness that can be controlled. “The perception [of bipolar disorder] 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 illness. “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: When bipolar disorder is well controlled, a person’s job performance does not have to be affected by it. “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 disorder.
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 the illness that way. Some people have predominantly depressive episodes, with very few, mild symptoms of mania, called hypomania. Sureddi says people can sometimes 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 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.