Top 10 Misconceptions about Bipolar Disorder

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Bipolar disorder describes a mental condition in which an individual can experience extreme moods of either mania or depression. The disorder affects both men and women equally and typically begins between the ages of 15 and 25. Although researchers don’t know the exact cause or causes of bipolar disorder, it does occur more commonly in people who have family with the condition. Three types of the condition are known. Type I is what people generally think of and is characterized by major depression with at least one episode of mania. People with the Type II condition never have a fully realized period of mania, though they will have periods of heightened energy. A third form, called cyclothymia, displays the same mood swings but at a lesser degree of severity.

Since bipolar disorder can be triggered by life events, it can seem to appear out of nowhere. When that is coupled with its unknown etiology, it’s clear that bipolar disorder is ripe for misconceptions. Here are 10 of the more common misconceptions of the disorder.

10. Bipolar Disorder Can Be Cured

Most people with diagnosed bipolar disorder control the condition with medication and psychiatric therapy. There is no cure (at least not yet) for the condition, though medication has worked very well for most people with the disorder. In fact, for many, the medication can actually completely relieve the manic and depressive episodes as long as it’s taken faithfully. Once people go off the medication, their symptoms return. As a result, medication may need to be taken for a lifetime, but that doesn’t constitute a cure. People with bipolar disorder need understanding from those around them and the rest of society. Thinking there’s a cure for the condition encourages people to disregard the lifelong management of the condition.

9. Bipolar Disorder Dictates Every Mood

It’s tempting to think that mood disorders affect every emotion and mood that person experiences. In fact, bipolar disorder doesn’t dictate every mood but describes a condition in which a person suffers through periods of mania and periods of depression. Between the extremes are a whole spectrum of normal emotions. Someone with bipolar disorder can still have moments of happiness and sadness that do not qualify as mania or depression. On average, episodes of either mania or depression last 13 weeks, but between episodes, someone with bipolar disorder lives a relatively normal life.

Related to this misconception is the belief that medication turns people with bipolar disorder into zombies. In fact, medication does not impact or direct every mood and emotion. Medication helps to control the swings to the extreme. On medication, a person with the disorder may feel more normal than without the medication.

8. People with Bipolar Disorder Have Wild Mood Swings

Some forms of bipolar disorder include rapid cycles between the manic and depressive extremes. Rapid cycling means someone has at least four episodes per year but still has periods of normal moods between episodes. In some instances, a person can have ultra-rapid cycling, which means the person’s mood swings from one extreme to another with no normal periods in between.

The possibility does exist, but the frequency is far from common. In fact, only 10 to 20 percent of people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder suffer from rapid cycling in any severity. More commonly, people average not even a single episode every year. The episodes themselves typically last an average of 13 weeks. The numbers suggest that people with bipolar disorder are far more likely to experience lengthy periods of each episodes followed by even longer periods of normal moods. They may fall into a manic or depressive episode suddenly, but they rarely experience frequent and wild mood swings.

7. People Can Stop Being Bipolar if They Try Hard Enough

Bipolar disorder is a recognized mental illness that can be managed with medication to control the mood swings and psychiatric therapy to identify triggers. For most of us, we can control our emotions on a day-to-day basis. We have our bouts of sadness that we can pull ourselves out of by spending time with a friend or laughing at something. We also have times when we’re amped up, but we can usually take a deep breath and calm ourselves down. This is not the same situation for someone with bipolar disorder. They cannot just “snap out of it” the way we can with our normal range of emotions.,

Mania, at its severest, can resemble psychosis, and major depression can be crippling. Both emotions can lead someone to neglect themselves to the point of not eating, not sleeping, or not taking care of personal hygiene. The degree to which the mood extremes can incapacitate a person goes far beyond personal will power. This misconception implies that people with bipolar disorder are weak or lazy, when they really have a condition that requires continued treatment to control.

6. Bipolar Disorder Is Not a Real Illness

Since bipolar disorder affects moods, people often think it doesn’t qualify as a real illness. After all, we all have periods of heightened energy and excitement, along with times when we feel blue. Describing bipolar disorder as moving between happiness and sadness, though, seriously undervalues the severity of the condition. When most of us have periods of happiness or sadness, we can often change our moods at will. We can choose to take a minute to calm down, or we can watch a funny movie to lift our spirits. People with bipolar disorder don’t have that ability to will themselves into other moods any more than we have the ability to will ourselves out of a common cold.

The disorder is held distinct from a medical illness or disease, as there are no biological tests to confirm or deny the presence of the condition. However, bipolar disorder is a recognized mental illness by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As with other mood disorders, like major depression, diagnosis relies on a series of screening questions and rating scales. Once diagnosed, people with the disorder often undergo a treatment plan that combines medication and psychiatric therapy.

5. Bipolar Disorder Is a Result of Upbringing

Blaming upbringing mood disorders is commonplace. Since there are not biological tests to confirm bipolar disorder, and it depends more on subjective screening to diagnose, it can seem to be less serious and less of a clinical condition. Most of us have probably experienced frustration with our family. We probably know what it’s like to have someone make us feel depressed or elated. The emotions may seem similar, but they differ by degree. Our excitement or depression fall within the normal range of emotions, but those with bipolar disorder are far beyond the bounds of normalcy when they experience their mania or depression. Their condition is controlled with medication and psychiatric therapy.

It is true that people with bipolar disorder tend to have it in their family history. This would suggest a possible genetic origin, but it does not indicate that the disorder is a product of upbringing. Claiming that someone is experiencing their mania or major depression because of how the person was raised makes the condition something that can be eradicated by just “getting over it.”

4. People Are Happy During Periods of Mania

When we think of mania, we tend to think of high energy, and high energy seems to suggest happiness. The implication of this misconception is that people with bipolar disorder don’t really have it so bad because their manic states are like periods of extreme happiness. Who doesn’t want to be extremely happy? The problem is, happiness is the last term to use to describe actual mania. During a manic state, a person has an uncontrollable, frenzied energy. Someone can become irritable, obsessive, hallucinatory, or even aggressive. The manic and depressive states are extremes in the most literal sense. It’s not a joy to experience them.

The truth is that someone can, and very likely is, miserable during a manic state. Imagine having a caffeine high only 100 times worse and completely out of your control. Mania has some of the same features as psychosis. It’s inaccurate to call that happiness and think that it’s not so bad. There’s a reason why people take medication to prevent mania.

3. Bipolar Disorder Is a Split Personality

The two mood extremes that characterize bipolar disorder are literally at opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s not surprising that some people think of it as a split personality. A person can change from seeming fine to experiencing crippling depression to demonstrating uncontrollable bouts of mania. The mania, in particular, is often manifested as irritability, racing thoughts, pressured speech, and impaired judgment, all of which can make someone seem like a different person. Someone with bipolar disorder may seem to be three different people, depending on whether the person is in one of the two extremes or having normal moods. None of this is indicative of split personality, though.

What we often call split personality is more properly known as dissociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder. People with split personalities actually create alternate identities with associated memory loss. The personalities are distinct, complete identities that take over the person. Bipolar disorder is not defined as multiple distinct personalities. Having bipolar disorder means having a wide and uncontrollable array of emotions but not multiple personalities.

2. People with Bipolar Disorder Are Unstable or Violent

For sure, this misconception stems from the uncontrolled mania that is the hallmark of bipolar disorder. During periods of mania, people can exhibit frenzied behavior. In the worst cases, mania can resemble psychosis, with hallucinations, aggression, delusions of grandeur, and obsessive preoccupation with schemes to the point of self-neglect. In those instances, a person is unstable and can become violent. It would be quite unfair, though, to define a person by those brief periods of mania, even if it gets that severe. It’s even more unfair to define someone by those behaviors if they never get that far.

Part of the misconception is that people with bipolar disorder cannot function in daily life or hold a job because they are unstable or violent. That’s simply untrue. Most people with bipolar disorder experience, at most, one episode of either depression or mania a year, and it will typically last for 13 weeks. That amounts to a worst-case scenario for the average sufferer of one season a year with an extreme mood. The numbers actually state that, over the course of several years, the average number of episodes per year is around 0.4 to 0.7, which makes it even less likely that someone will be too unstable or violent to be unemployable. The extreme cases do exist, but it’s inaccurate to claim that all people with bipolar disorder are as bad as the most severe cases.

1. People with Bipolar Disorder Are Unfaithful

This is one misconception that is based on some degree of truth. One of the side effects of a manic state is hyper-sexuality. When someone is in a manic, hyper-sexual state, their sexual impulses are extreme and difficult, if not impossible, to control. Women are impacted far more than men. It’s not too uncommon for people in a hyper-sexual state to exhibit promiscuous behavior, engage in illicit and even dangerous sexual activities, and jump headlong into extramarital affairs.

The facts are there to give this misconception some traction. However, as with other misconceptions or stereotypes, the perception far exceeds the scope of the truth. Hyper-sexuality only happens when an individual is in a manic state, and even then, not everyone experiences it. The statistical range of experience is wide, but the median is that 57 percent. In other words, just over half of all people who experience mania will have moments of hyper-sexuality. Though the number is high, it doesn’t tell how often those people act our their hyper-sexuality or even experience it. All it takes is one occurrence to become part of a statistic. In addition, it’s important to remember that not everyone with bipolar disorder is constantly in a state of mania. Depression is the more common mood. Bipolar disorder requires only one episode of mania to go along with the depression.

What this means is that, even though 57 percent is a large and startling number, when taken in perspective of the entire population of individuals with bipolar disorder, it many not amount to as many people as thought. To make this a broad and generalized statement about all people with the condition is inaccurate and potentially destructive.