The word "bipolar" is often used during casual and joking diagnosis of someone who's happy one minute and sad the next, but the real thing, bipolar disorder, is a serious mental illness that's wrecked lives. There's still much that remains unknown about the disease, but knowledge of it is growing, and great strides have been made in its treatment. However, there are many misperceptions about the condition, and a lot of things that even researchers and doctors used to believe about bipolar disorder have been scrapped.
So what are 10 myths about bipolar disorder that continue to misinform? Keep reading to find out.
There's Only One Type of Bipolar Disorder
A common -- but mistaken -- belief is that there is only one type of bipolar disorder, but there are actually several:
- Bipolar I disorder is distinguished by its inclusion of a full-blown manic episode at some point in the person's life.
- A person with bipolar II, a milder form of the disorder than bipolar I, goes back and forth between periods of depression and periods of elevated moods, but not actual mania.
- Cyclothymic bipolar disorder is similar to bipolar II, but less severe.
- Several periods of mania and/or depression in a single year indicates rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
- If highs and lows coexist or occur quickly back-to-back, this is mixed bipolar disorder.
Mania Sounds Like Fun
A surface understanding of manic episodes -- or their occasional representation in movies or TV shows -- makes them seem like a good time. You get lots done, you have endless energy, you're highly extroverted -- why wouldn't you be on top of the world?
Some people with bipolar disorder do experience happiness when in a manic state, but often, the reins of life can slip out of their hands. They become highly excitable, anxious and irritable. Their minds careen from one seemingly grand idea to the next, and their sleep rhythms fall apart. They may begin making bolder and risky decisions when it comes to sex, and may overindulge on alcohol or drugs. Some people start gambling or racking up huge shopping tabs. Mania can also cause psychotic thoughts and actions.
So there you have it -- another reason not to believe everything you see about mental illness in the media.
Very Few People Actually Have Bipolar Disorder
While most of us know about or have heard of bipolar disorder or manic depression, it's easy to think that it doesn't affect that many people. After all, many patients don't disclose their condition to co-workers or acquaintances, and the casual observer may not detect anything more significant than an especially good mood or a person having a bad day. But almost 6 million Americans are affected each year by bipolar disorder, according to WebMD.
Bipolar disorder doesn't discriminate based on gender or race, and seems to affect all groups evenly across the board. While most often symptoms present themselves in young adulthood (late teens to early 20s), older adults are susceptible as well as young children.
Children Can't Get Bipolar Disorder
Life for many families would be easier if this next myth were indeed true. However, children as young as 6 can develop bipolar disorder, and the disease can prompt children to attempt suicide. When bipolar disorder presents itself at a young age, there's often a corresponding family history of mood disorders. Children who develop it can experience many periods of depression before the first manic episode, making it harder to diagnose. Sometimes, these depressions are accompanied by psychotic thoughts and behaviors, and children are more likely to experience mixed states -- that is, having mania and depression at the same time.
While lithium is often less effective in children (and the side effects are worse), advancing research and knowledge of adolescent bipolar disorder -- when matched with early detection and treatment -- offers more hope each day to families with bipolar children.
Did You Know?
Early-onset bipolar disorder (bipolar disorder in children) can be more severe than the adult version, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Symptoms and changes in mood occur more frequently in bipolar children than they do in adults.
It's Just a Dramatic Term for Mood Swings
We've all experienced mood swings, so it's easy to think bipolar disorder is just a fancy name for one.
When most people feel in the dumps or on top of the world, it's usually a short-term feeling that fades away along with the reasons that prompted the feeling, or as a result of a gradual adjustment to the new circumstances.
Bipolar mood swings are different, and they can last for weeks or months. Up mood swings often lead to dangerous lifestyle choices, racing thoughts that refuse to be corralled and out-of-ordinary behaviors that can damage careers and family lives. Down mood swings for a bipolar person lead to excessive sleep and lethargy, uncontrollable crying and even thoughts of (and attempts at) suicide.
So when we're talking about bipolar disorder, we're not talking about good moods and bad moods. There's no "snapping out of it" when it comes this condition.
Bipolar Disorder Means High Highs or Low Lows
When most of us hear the words bipolar or manic depression, we think of very high highs and very low lows. Additionally, we think that people with bipolar disorder simply go from one to the other, with no stop in between.
While severe cases can involve such features, most people don't careen from high to low and back again. Patients may be in state of mania or depression for a while, or they may be in between the two. They may even show signs of both simultaneously. Some people go months or even years with bipolar disorder in regression, only to have it rear its ugly head again. Some people cycle quickly between high and low, while others only experience a full-blown manic state once every few years.
Regardless of frequency, the intensity is highly variable as well. Many people with bipolar disorder have more mild highs and lows and cycle between these states.
Bipolar Disorder Only Affects Mood
While the best known symptoms of bipolar disorder are mood related (and the disease itself is a mood disorder), bipolar disorder affects a person in many other ways as well.
When people with bipolar disorder experience highs or lows, they experience problems with overall cognitive functions as well as mood. A person may one day have a razor-sharp mind and sharpened intellect, and the next day have muddled thoughts and a sluggish thought process.
It also messes with sleep patterns. While experiencing a "high," someone with bipolar disorder won't sleep as much (sometimes hardly at all), and seemingly won't be the worse for it during the day. In fact, lack of sleep is often a precursor to a manic episode that hasn't presented itself yet. When experiencing a "low," a person will oversleep and never feel fully rested and alert.
Highs and lows also contribute to bad lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking, poor diet and drug use.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Can Cause Bipolar Disorder
Many people with bipolar disorder are also frequent or heavy users of alcohol and nonprescription drugs. This in part has led to a belief that substance abuse -- offering its own often unpredictable highs and lows -- can cause you to snap and become bipolar.
While there is increased use of alcohol and drugs for people with bipolar disorder, it's not a contributing factor. A healthy person without bipolar disorder can't "crack" through alcohol or drug use and develop it.
People with bipolar disorder are more prone to engaging in risky, dangerous behaviors, and many also attempt to self-medicate in hopes of decreasing mood swings, getting sleep and dealing with anxiety. Though many people find short-term success or results, over the long haul these behaviors take their toll.
All You Need are Meds
Modern medications have made a wonderful difference and vast improvement in the lives of many people with bipolar disorder. But while lithium, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and other drugs are very important in the treatment of the condition (especially when first treated during a full-blown high or low), it's now commonly accepted that long-term success is best attained when treatment doesn't rely on medications alone.
Instead, treatment should include regular counseling from a trained mental health professional and a treatment support network consisting of family, friends, counselors or group-therapy sessions. It's also important to maintain a steady and healthy lifestyle -- that means proper sleep, diet, exercise and sobriety.
People will be most successful in dealing with bipolar disorder by developing a treatment plan that manages the issue through a variety of different means, and not just with medication alone.
Meds Will Turn You Into a Zombie
Bipolar disorder is usually treated through some combination of drugs like lithium, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics and antidepressants, but pills often have side effects. Lithium in particular has a reputation for turning patients into zombies. It's not totally undeserved, but side effects usually fade away after a few months of use, and the remaining side effects can often be alleviated through dosage adjustment.
The same holds true for anticonvulsants and antipsychotics. Dosages may be higher than usual at first, especially when dealing with extreme mania or depression. However, once the crisis has passed, the dosage is generally lowered to facilitate a stable, happy and productive life. Lithium or any other specific drug may just not be right for you, but by working with your doctor, a better option can be found.
For more information about mental health issues, see the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at the concept of digital hoarding and how it compares with other forms of hoarding.