As troubling as it is, it’s not uncommon to hear someone negatively refer to another as being “so bipolar.” This term can be used as a way to conceptualize your boss’ behavior after he looses his cool during a meeting (no way it could be due to the recent missed deadlines … right?) or to describe your partner during a relationship dispute (again, I did nothing wrong … he is “bipolar”).
We all have that friend who is emotionally unpredictable, impulsive and just plain moody (we all know the type ), but does that mean they are suffering from the serious mental illness that is bipolar disorder? Not only can the incorrect and lax use of this word be offensive, but it also infers that those who are living with bipolar disorder have a choice in the matter. That could not be further from the truth.
What exactly does it mean to have (yes, have … not be) bipolar? Below, the common myths of this very serious disorder are discussed.
MYTH: My mom is so bipolar. I can never predict if she is going to be in a good mood or mad at me for something trivial.
MEANING: We all have that friend who loses her cool at any moment, or a parent who goes from 0 to 10 in what feels like milliseconds. There are many individuals who find it difficult to manage their own feelings, temper and mood. Others may label these fluctuations and behaviors as ‘being bipolar,’ however, in reality what these individuals are actually experiencing is emotional dysregulation.
In order to be diagnosed with bipolar I or II disorder, an individual must experience a true manic or hypomanic episode respectively. A manic episode can be diagnosed when somebody experiences elevated, expansive or irritable mood in addition to other symptoms over a period of 1 week (and not a 20 minute outburst or multiple changes of mood during the day). In addition to the elevated mood, other symptoms of mania include a decreased need for sleep (only a few hours of sleep per night…. if at all), a change in risk-taking behaviors (ex: gambling, promiscuity, reckless driving and spending), an increase in goal-oriented activities (ex: impulsively starting a new business), new unrealistic beliefs about the self (grandiosity), a change in speed of talking and thinking (talking so fast that other people can’t interrupt), and distractibility. Hypomania includes the aforementioned symptoms, but the symptoms aren’t as severe and don’t last as long.
MYTH: I have never been depressed, therefore, I must not have bipolar disorder.
MEANING: Just to make things confusing, there are two different types of bipolar disorder; bipolar I and bipolar II disorder. In bipolar I disorder, an individual must experience a true manic episode (as discussed above) and may or may not experience a depressive episode (hence, one can be diagnosed with bipolar I disorder if he or she has never felt depressed).
Those with bipolar II disorder have experienced a hypomanic episode, and (at some point) a two-week episode of depressed mood (in addition to a change in sleep, appetite, memory, concentration, energy, interests, guilt and/or suicidal thoughts).
MYTH: I have bipolar disorder but, unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to prevent another manic or depressive episode.
MEANING: If you know someone with bipolar disorder, or you are living with the disorder yourself, there are things you can do to help prevent either a manic or depressive episode.
As a loved one:
- Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
- Educate yourself on the disorder so you can understand (as much as possible) what your friend, partner or family member is experiencing. Having knowledge of the common symptoms of bipolar disorder can help with early detection of relapse.
- Be understanding of certain situations that may trigger your loved ones’ symptoms (ex: late night parties, long haul flights).
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule (avoid late night parties and shift work).
- Nourish yourself with healthy foods.
- Remain compliant with your medication regime prescribed by your psychiatrist. Relapse of symptoms can occur within days of abruptly stopping medications.
Next time you hear the phrase, ‘I’m so bipolar’, please help lessen the stigma by bringing awareness to those surrounding you as to what it is they are actually saying. With increased awareness there will be less shame and more respect for those who are living with bipolar disorder. Together, we can usher in change.
What other mental health issues do you wish were talked about more openly?
Image via Monica Outcalt