There was a time in my life when I used to think I’m bipolar. It was the end of my senior year, and I was continuously experiencing mixed feelings of happiness and sadness. I was juggling between moods from one moment to the next. But little did I know back then about what “being bipolar” really means. Little do people know about this disorder. While researching the topic I convinced myself that the period I went through during the last year of high school was just a weird emotional phase. Therefore, what does bipolar disorder really mean?
Globally, around 46 million people are estimated to suffer from bipolar disorder, which means 0.6% of the total population. By definition, according to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, bipolar disorder (BD), formerly known as manic-depressive illness, is a behavior disorder characterized by severe shifts in a person’s mood and energy, making it difficult for the person to function. The three main types of this disorder are bipolar disorder I, bipolar disorder II, and cyclothymia, recognized by the following three symptoms: mania, hypomania, and depression (each of these lasting from days to weeks and even months, depending on the type).
These up and down mood swings seriously affect a person’s daily life, and if we observe them persist in ourselves or someone close, that’s the sing to consult a psychologist. Bipolar disorder affects more people than current statistics show, usually starting during the transition from adolescence to adulthood (18 to 25 years old), as psychologist Claudia Chiorean says.
Louise is now in her senior year and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II in December 2020. Here’s how she describes being bipolar: “Bipolar feels incredibly confusing and unpredictable and sometimes, to me, it feels like I don’t even know myself that well”. After two years of being aware of her disorder, she still finds it hard to fully comprehend the situation. And she’s not the only one.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder are well defined, yet there is a serious lack of awareness when it comes to this topic, both from average people and professionals. That’s why many end up living with the disorder without having it properly diagnosed and treated, struggling on their own. In everyday life, a person affected by bipolar disorder, uncontrollably shifting between moods, encounters serious difficulties especially when it comes to social relations and work.
Louise says she comes across difficulties in her social relations “almost every day”. “It can get confusing for the people who see me often,” she says, referring especially to her family and boyfriend, considering that when her mood suddenly changes, “they become almost disoriented; they don’t know what to do and how to react”. After having a great time hanging out with her boyfriend, Louise said she often experienced sudden mood shifts “arguments would start, I would get very sentimental and hypersensitive out of nowhere and say things that I didn’t mean. Then we would walk the rest of the way in silence”. “Thankfully, he was always understanding, but I also know that he was hurting because of me during those moments of silence,” she added.
School is not an easy task either. “Studying or focusing on schoolwork is definitely a challenge for me, especially during depressive episodes,” Louise says, explaining that when experiencing these episodes, she has “absolutely no motivation to study” and ends up procrastinating. This makes her fall behind in her schoolwork and causes disappointment in herself.
The lack of information on the topic can be observed starting with people who don’t even know that bipolar disorder is a real thing. Supposing they become bipolar from a certain point in their lives, there is a high probability they would only consider the depressive episodes (“down” moods), and as a result, they identify their mental situation as unipolar depression. Psychologist Claudia Chiorean says that for a person suffering from BD is very hard to realize what is happening with their mental condition, since “it’s a disorder based on a high emotional lability, associated with impulsivity, assumed risks, excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol, and unprotected sex”. That’s why a specialist is essential in diagnosing bipolar disorder.
Passionate about psychology, Louise has researched various disorders, so she knew general information about bipolar even before her diagnosis. Yet, she was very surprised when her therapist told her she had bipolar II: “I expected any other diagnosis, but I never expected to be diagnosed as bipolar type II. […] I never noticed myself shifting into being bipolar, but over time I slowly felt like I was losing my mind.”
On the other hand, some people heard the term from somewhere, yet they don’t know its real meaning. I say this because of the many occasions bipolar disorder is brought up in the wrong context, often used in jokes that even if considered innocent, show the little information people have on the subject. And I’m saying this having clear in mind one of my university professors who referred to a student as being bipolar because of the difference in quality he observed in their work. Of course, he said it as a joke, with no bad intention. Still, it’s evidence of how ignorant people can be when it comes to this topic.
“I heard jokes about bipolar disorder a lot through high school,” says Louise. She observed that people of her age tend to use the term as any other adjective, and they mostly use it incorrectly. The jokes have always bothered her because she takes mental health seriously, and she became even more frustrated by them after being diagnosed.
But there’s something even worse when it comes to the lack of information known about bipolar disorder. In fact, there are specialists in mental health, who are incapable of properly recognizing the illness. One of the biggest problems when it comes to bipolar disorder is misdiagnosis. As the scientific article A systematic review of the evidence of the burden of bipolar disorder in Europe states, there is strong evidence showing that bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed and that consequently, prevalence and incidence rates are underestimated. For example, in a US population screen, 31.2% of individuals with positive screens on the Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ) for bipolar I or II disorders, had previously received a diagnosis of unipolar depression. To avoid misdiagnosis specialists must not analyze symptoms superficially, psychologist Chiorean says.
People with bipolar disorder do not only struggle in social relations or at work. The problem is way more serious. If the depressive periods of BD consist of a lack of energy and gloomy mood, the hypomanic and especially, the manic periods imply endless energy which is exhausting for both the person who is experiencing it and those around them. These extreme shifts in mood are not easy to manage, so according to the cited study “patients with bipolar disorder are also at higher risk of premature mortality, with 1 in 5 patients committing suicide”.
Louise describes the two moods she finds herself in as being “incredibly unpredictable”. In her manic state, impulsive and oblivious, she spends money recklessly on useless things, usually cigarettes and alcoholic drinks. She used to drink hard with her friends in order to mask her manic episodes and look drunk instead, because she felt like “that was more socially acceptable”. The depressive states, instead, have a numbing effect: “I wouldn’t feel much. I would have no sense of belonging and I would slip into something known as derealization”.
Although both manic and depressive states can have serious consequences, Louis revealed that depressive states have put her in more difficult situations. “From wanting to end everything to drinking again”, her worst experience was falling asleep in the bathtub while the water was running. Thanks to her dad, who knocked at the door, asking if she was fine, she woke up when the water was right under her bottom lip feeling “terrified and alive at the same time.”
Essential for the prevention of serious consequences (such as comorbidities, suicide, early death, unemployment, or underemployment) is a correct diagnosis and the proper treatment. As mentioned in the article The Dangers of Mental Health Misdiagnosis: Why Accuracy Matters, by delaying therapy, distress grows while hope diminishes. This can threaten both emotional and behavioral functions. So, the sooner the better.
With the proper treatment, meaning a mix of medication and psychotherapy, a person can live a good life even if diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As Bipolar Statistics 2022 shows, many people with a bipolar diagnosis hold regular jobs, are parents, are successful, and live normal lives. Louise says: “Over time, I learned that my disorder doesn’t define me, that I’m not just THAT. I’m so much more and eventually, you find people who love you regardless of your disorder.”
If you feel depressed, experience panic attacks or anxiety and wish to talk to a specialist, call 0800 0800 20 for free – available 24/7 (Romania).