Myths about bipolar disorder abound and, honestly, most people don’t know anything about bipolar except the myths, or common misconceptions. On World Bipolar Day, it makes sense to me to spend a little time pointing out bipolar myths and addressing them.
Bipolar Myth 1: Bipolar Disorder Doesn’t Really Exist or Is a Moral Weakness/Character Flaw
We can mostly blame scientologists and antipsychiatrists for perpetuating this common myth and I can tell you, from the bottom of my soul, after living with bipolar disorder for 17 years, nothing feels more real to me than bipolar disorder.
Scientifically, though, we actually know that bipolar disorder is real because we can see it on scans. Yes, that’s right, bipolar brains look different than average brains. For example, we know that people who suffer major mood episodes actually have parts of their brain shrink. Really. Please read here for more on brain differences in bipolar disorder.
We also know that bipolar disorder is genetic. In twin studies, identical twins showed a concordance rate of 33-90% for bipolar I and someone with a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder has a seven times greater risk of developing bipolar than the average person.
Bipolar Myth 2: Bipolar Disorder Is about Mood Swings
People have a misconception about bipolar (thanks TV and movies, mostly) that people with bipolar disorder are up one second, angry the next, and suicidal the moment after that. This just isn’t true. In typical cases of untreated bipolar disorder, moods actually last months – not minutes. Now, there are rare variants of bipolar disorder that do cycle more quickly – one, known as ultradian, can see people with bipolar cycling in a few hours. This, however, is the major exception. (Women tend to suffer rapid cycling variants more often than men, FYI.)
Bipolar Myth 3: Bipolar Disorder Isn’t That Bad and Has Upsides
In the early 1990s it was estimated that bipolar disorder cost the economy 15.5 billion dollars annually due to lost productivity. But if that isn’t enough to convince you of the severity of bipolar disorder, consider this: up to half of all people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide and up to 11% will die by suicide. If you suddenly contracted an illness where more than one-in-ten people died of it, I think you would consider it pretty severe. In case you were wondering, people with bipolar disorder also die sooner than the average person thanks to a greater risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
As far as its upsides go, the only thing really scientifically proven is that people with bipolar disorder are often more creative than the average individual. Well, yippee for me.
Bipolar Myth 4; People with Bipolar Disorder Are Violent or Dangerous
According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), there is some truth to this myth. It found that 0.66% of people in the general population without a psychiatric condition displayed aggression (overt acts intended to harm) whereas in people with bipolar disorder (without comorbidities) the number was 2.52% in bipolar I and 5.12% in bipolar II. So, yes people with bipolar disorder have been shown to be more aggressive than the average person. That said, we’re still talking about a sliver of people with bipolar disorder. More people die of bipolar disorder, times two, than are overtly aggressive with it.
(The numbers do climb dramatically if the person with bipolar also has a personality disorder or abuses substances, but that’s another matter entirely.)
Bipolar Myth #5: People with Bipolar Disorder Shouldn’t Be in Relationships
This particular bipolar myth really hurts people with bipolar disorder as it often isolates them from others and lowers their self-esteem with regards to relationships. People with bipolar disorder have, in some cases, bought into the bipolar myth that they simply aren’t worthy of other people.
This is not true, however. People with bipolar disorder have an illness; yes, it’s true. This illness tends to pose a lifelong challenge; yes, it’s true. This illness can wear down a relationship; yes, it’s true. But none of that means that people with bipolar disorder can’t be in loving, successful relationships. Many are quite happily coupled. Is it hard? I’m guessing so, but relationships are always hard and always have challenges and any severe illness would be one such challenge. And, keep in mind, 50% of all married couples do end up divorcing and you can’t blame all of that on mental illness.
Myths about Bipolar Hurt Those with Bipolar
The thing about myths about bipolar is they hurt people with bipolar disorder as they lead to bipolar prejudice and discrimination. If someone meets me and thinks that I’m a monster, then, of course they’re going to treat me badly, no matter how unfair that may be. So on this World Bipolar Awareness Day, please take a moment to educate yourself or a loved one about the facts about bipolar disorder. That real understanding can make the world better, and more accepting, for all.