Myths About Bipolar Disorder: Deconstructing the Barriers to Treatment

Bipolar disorder is commonly misunderstood, with many myths and misconceptions painting a picture of the mental illness as something it just isn’t. These misconceptions can create barriers to treatment, making it hard for people to get the care that they need. By analyzing the various myths surrounding the disorder, we can start to break those barriers down, and make treatment possible for those who live with it.

For days on end, you feel a pervasive sense of hopelessness, one that makes it hard for you to see any positivity in the life you’re in. All of a sudden, things seem to be looking up—a renewed sense of energy makes you feel on top of the world. You start making a list of all of the things that you’re going to accomplish, a list that gets longer and longer—until you start feeling unfocused, irritable, and unstable. If you live with bipolar disorder, this is a story that likely hits close to home.

Despite the millions of Americans who live with bipolar disorder, misconceptions about it are commonplace. They undermine the severity of the disorder and make it difficult for people to seek treatment. There’s a perception that those who live with bipolar simply don’t have the willpower to manage their moods, and that can make people seeking treatment for it feel misunderstood and stigmatized. It’s essential that we understand that stigma (whether it’s coming from family or friends or our culture at large) so that we can ensure that those who are suffering get the help that they need.

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Myth: Bipolar Disorder is Governed Only By Highs and Lows

One of the biggest (and perhaps most dangerous) misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder is that it’s ruled by two modes: really high highs, and really low lows. In reality, the disorder is complex and varied. There are four types, each characterized by varying shifts in mood, activity levels, and energy:

Bipolar I: At least one manic or mixed episode within a lifetime.

Bipolar II: At least one hypomanic episode in addition to at least one depressive episode within a lifetime.

Cyclothymic Disorder: Shorter periods of hypomania that alternate with short periods of depression.

Mixed: A combination of symptoms that do not fit any of the above criteria.

Although the range of these moods varies between periods of extreme energy (also known as manic episodes) and “down” periods (called depressive episodes), there are many moods within the two spectrums, and they’re much more than simple happiness or sadness. David Lovelace, a writer who lives with bipolar disorder, describes what it’s like to live with the illness:

Depression is a painfully slow, crashing death. Mania is the other extreme, a wild roller coaster run off its tracks, an eight ball of coke cut with speed. It’s fun and it’s frightening as hell. Some patients—bipolar type I—experience both extremes; other—bipolar type II—suffer depression almost exclusively. But the “mixed state,” the mercurial churning of both high and low, is the most dangerous, the most deadly. Suicide too often results from the impulsive nature and physical speed of psychotic mania coupled with depression’s paranoid self-loathing.

For Lovelace, bipolar disorder is anything but linear ups and downs. People living with bipolar experience a wide range of emotions—it’s just that those emotions are often driven by a force outside of their control.

Myth: People Experiencing Manic Episodes Are Productive

During manic episodes, people with bipolar disorder often experience an elevated mood, a decreased need for sleep, and a boost in their self-esteem. While some manage to work during these periods, manic episodes are often far from productive—between racing thoughts that feel like they will never stop; intense, prolonged bursts of energy; and a sharp spike in impulsive risk-taking behaviors, it can be a terrifying experience. Of mania, Kay Redfield Jamison writes:

The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friends’ faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against–you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind.

During manic episodes, it’s much harder to do the sort of standard things our brains are programmed to do, like filter out external conversations and determine which thoughts are relevant to the current task (and which aren’t). “I don’t think people look forward to manic episodes,” says Thomas Smith, a research scientist from the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “When you are not manic, you can look back and see how disruptive your life became.”

Myth: Bipolar Disorder Is Rare

Whether we know someone with bipolar disorder or not, the belief that it’s a rare illness just isn’t true: approximately 5.7 million U.S. adults are affected by the disorder each year. Around 82 percent of these cases are classified as “severe.” Despite the severity and prevalence of bipolar, only about half of those suffering from it are currently receiving treatment—a staggering statistic when considered in conjunction with the range of therapies available to treat the disorder. Misunderstandings about the so-called rarity of bipolar disorder highlight a cultural need to recognize that bipolar disorder is more common than we think (or are willing to acknowledge). Without doing so, many who suffer from the disorder might never realize what it is they’re experiencing, and that can be a barrier to getting the help they so desperately need.

Understanding the Struggle

Too often, people with bipolar are undermined by the misconceptions surrounding the disorder, leading many to believe that it’s simply a rare illness that causes rapid shifting between extreme emotional highs and lows. In reality, it’s a complex disorder that requires compassionate, individualized treatment that promotes recovery and understanding.

Using the tools offered by comprehensive residential treatment, including concurrent programs for those with other health problems, people who live with bipolar disorder can find the road to recovery to be a lot less rough. At the end of the day, it’s essential that you receive treatment in a program staffed by professionals that truly understand bipolar disorder and adapt to meet your individual needs. That way, you can learn to master your highs, lows, and everything-in-betweens, and stand at the helm of your own recovery.

Bridges to Recovery is a residential treatment center for bipolar disorder and other mental health disorders. Connect with us to learn about how you can manage your bipolar disorder and regain control of your life.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Heidi Sandstrom