I started thinking about alcoholism the other day because of some stuff going on with a friend and I started to think about how high-functioning people often don’t consider themselves alcoholics because they’re high-functioning. How can I be an alcoholic; I have a job? A family. A wife. Friends. Money. A house. And so on…

And the same is true for people with bipolar disorder. People think to themselves, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a job.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I’m a good mother.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a degree from a top-tier school.”

But as I have told audiences over and over – mental illness happens, and it can happen to anyone.

How Does Mental Illness Look?

When I talk to teens about mental illness we brainstorm together how mental illness “looks” in their minds. People say things like, “scary, crazy, people talking to themselves, homeless people, old people, people in insane asylums,” and so on.

The teens say exactly what everyone is thinking – people with bipolar disorder look crazy. People think, “They’re not like me. I could never be one of them.”

I Don’t Look Like a Person with Bipolar Disorder

There is a myth that if you're high-functioning you can't have bipolar disorder, but people with bipolar look like everyone - even you.And you should see the faces of the teens when I say I have bipolar disorder. It’s a combination of a light bulb going on and a jaw dropping.

And then I compare myself to some of the movies and television shows that feature people with mental illnesses. I don’t look like a killer. I have no blood on my hands. My face isn’t mangled. I don’t choke kittens in my spare time. Gosh, I appear to look just like them.

People with Bipolar Disorder Have Jobs, Families, Lives

And I explain to the teens that you can’t tell if a person has a mental illness by looking at them. I tell them that a person with a mental illness might be sitting in their class and they would never know. Because people with bipolar disorder are just like everyone else – except we have a brain disorder.

High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder

But there is still this pervasive myth that exists that people who are high-functioning can’t have bipolar disorder. We think this because of cultural programming, sure, but we also think this because it keeps our psyches safe. We don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to be one of them. We want to draw a line between us and them. We want to feel secure that we’ll never be sick. So if we just have a job, then we must be okay.

People with Jobs Get Bipolar Disorder

And just like a top executive can be an alcoholic, a top CEO can also develop bipolar disorder. A job, a wife, kids, friends, money, house and a fancy car does not insulate you against the risk of mental illness. Mental illness happens. And it can happen to anyone.

While it is extremely hard for anyone to admit to a mental illness, it’s important that we get the message out there that mental illness looks like you. Mental illness looks like me. Mental illness looks like a family man. Mental illness looks like a kind sister. Mental illness looks like a software developer. Mental illness looks like a lawyer. Mental illness looks like your child.

And admitting to it, is not a weakness. There is no line between us and them. While none of us wants to be sick – if we do get sick, it doesn’t change who we are, it just means that we need treatment for a brain disorder. Being high-functioning will not protect you from a mental illness – no matter how much you wish it would.