3 Stigmas About Bipolar Disorder – Debunked

By: Kam

We all hear the word ‘bipolar’ bandied around today when describing someone who is indecisive or even describing the weather when it doesn’t seem to know if it wants to rain or shine. Comments like these show a lack of understanding about the serious mental health condition known as ‘Bipolar Disorder’ and unfortunately perpetuates the stigma associated with this. There are three things that I always come across when I see stigma against Bipolar Disorder so here they are – debunked.

  1. Does Bipolar mean that you can’t make up your mind?Absolutely not. See, I made a choice there with a very vehement NO.  The word for this is either indecisive or ambivalent and every human being on the planet will have times of indecision or ambivalence. There is no evidence that people living with bipolar are any more indecisive that the rest of the population and let’s face it, we have all faced that mind blowing question ‘what shall we eat for dinner’?Bipolar Disorder used to be called ‘Manic Depression’, a term coined by German doctor Emil Kraepelin in 1896 but was renamed in 1980 by the American Psychological Association to apparently represent the dual nature of the disorder. Many people including myself believe that this is a misnomer, there is much more to living with Bipolar Disoder than up’s and down’s and that certainly doesn’t account for those who live with Cyclothymic Disorder (mixed episodes) which is on the Bipolar Spectrum. Bipolar episodes are dictated by a lack of or excess of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. Would you assume someone with an under-active or overactive thyroid is indecisive because they body either makes too much or too little thyroxin? Of course not. Same goes for bipolar
  2. Is it really an illness or are you just moody/lazy?
    The most recent description of bipolar tells us that it is a neurobiological disorder that occurs in a specific part of the brain and is due to a malfunction of certain brain chemicals, neurotransmitters. For those of us, like me, without a degree in biology, the simple answer to this question is yes, it is really an illness and with this particular illness parts of your brain don’t work properly and malfunctions.  The effects of this are both mental and physical, for example it affects motivation (mental) but also energy levels (physical), it can cause depressive mood (mental) but also slow speech, confused words, aches and pains (physical). Calling someone in a depressive episode lazy is the same as calling someone on a diabetic diet, picky.One of the biggest challenges we face with an invisible illness is the perceptions of others. Many people living with mental health issues and some invisible physical conditions such a fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, for example, will have at some point in their lives had somebody question if they are just ‘being lazy’ or ‘making excuses’. This opinion comes from people who do not understand what it feels like to live with something such as bipolar and they have no frame of reference for knowing what we are and are not able to do. Bipolar Disorder is a biological and physical problem, but for our loved ones they might only see actions which to them appear personality driven and assume that deviant behaviour is a choice. Listening to loved ones saying things like that can be extremely demoralising and disheartening especially if you are just starting out on your journey to living well.
  3. Are people with Bipolar Disorder violent?
    Did you know, people living with mental health conditions are statistically much more likely to be the victims of hate crime than commit crime themselves. The UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed  that people whose disability impacted them ‘socially and behaviourally’ were four times more likely to be victims than those who said their disability impacted their mobility. So the simple answer to this question is no, but the media like to portray mental health in a very negative light, especially in movies. What we are looking at here is prejudice and stereotyping. Violence is generally a learned behaviour and not innate, therefore only a small percentage of people in general would resort to violence with or without a mental health condition. An experiment funded by the Swedish Medical Research Council and the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research was conducted where researchers from Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, and Oxford University, in a population-based, longitudinal cohort study, compared the risk of violent crime in people with bipolar disorder who had been living in hospital with the risk in the general population.  They looked at 3,743 individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found that while 8.4% were classed as committing a violent crime, this was mostly (95%) confined to those with substance abuse issues. What this study shows us is that people who are hospitalised, substance abusers and not in control of their mental health have a small percentage likelihood of being violent and this has literally no reflection what so ever on everybody else. As somebody living, working and functioning well in society, I am no more likely to commit violent crime than the next person, just because I live with bipolar disorder. 

While it’s really frustrating to be stigmatised like this we have to remember that it’s a lack of education that created the problem. People who have not walked your path or lived your life will not understand what you experience. When someone doesn’t understand your depression and tells you to ‘cheer up’, for example, instead of getting angry remind yourself – My reality is not your reality. You can’t expect people who have never felt what you feel to understand it. It’s like asking a person born blind to describe the colour red. They can make an intelligent guess based on things they’ve heard but they can’t truly understand something they’ve never experienced. Have patience with loved ones, only with education will come understanding. 

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