Between Kanye West’s erratic behaviour scrutinised by the media and misleading depictions in pop culture – Silver Linings Playbook and Law and Order: SVU included – it’s evident that we need to do better when it comes to understanding bipolar disorder. And that’s where World Bipolar Day comes in. Incidentally, March 30 was designated World Bipolar Day to reflect the birthday of artist Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed with the mood disorder.
The vision of this annual celebration is to bring world awareness to the different types of bipolar disorder (bipolar I and bipolar II being the most common) and improve sensitivity towards the illness. Truly damaging, in this case, are the many widely believed myths that aren’t always true, thereby impacting the social inclusion of those with bipolar disorder. Here, Dr. Rasha Bassim, a Medical Director and Specialist Psychiatrist from Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, tackles the five that persist.
Myth 1. Bipolar disorder is code for mood swings.
“Mood swings refer to changes in mood from high to low, or vice versa. It is normal for someone’s mood to change, depending on the situation, and for them to experience mood swings to a certain degree. However, extreme mood swings can be characteristic of several mental illnesses, especially when it affects daily life and causes problems in personal and professional relationships.
Bipolar disorder is one of several mental illnesses that manifests in mood swings, such as schizoaffective disorder, cyclothymia, and personality disorders. As a result, detailed and longitudinal history-taking, mental state examination, and psychometric assessments are mandatory for determining the specific mental disorder.”
Myth 2. Only adults are diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“As a matter of fact, the average age-of-onset of bipolar disorder is about 25, but it can occur during teenage years or, more uncommonly, in childhood.”
Myth 3. The highs (mania) and lows (depression) come like clockwork.
“Not necessarily. The first episode is usually called the index episode. It could be mania or depression. They do not typically happen like clockwork – sometimes, they have no predicted pattern. Bipolar disorder does not just involve mania and/or depression; other clinical presentations like hypomania and mixed episodes can also be common.
Hypomania is a less severe form of mania, whereby patients can display heightened energy or activity level and a mood or behaviour that is usually unrecognisable by their friends and family. Mixed episodes are diagnosed when symptoms of mania and depression occur at the same time or in rapid sequence without recovery in between.”
Myth 4. Bipolar disorder cannot be cured.
“Medication is required to control the symptoms of bipolar disorder, but it is not the only treatment. Doctors also emphasise the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, avoiding drugs and alcohol, cultivating good sleeping habits, exercising, and successfully managing stress levels in combination with the prescribed medication. While no cure exists for bipolar disorder, it is a treatable and manageable disorder with the help of psychotherapy and medications.
Mood-stabilising medications are usually the first choice in medication. They vary according to the overall clinical picture and type of bipolar disorder, as well as the individual’s medical profile. Bipolar disorder is much better controlled when treatment is continuous. Sometimes, however, mood changes can occur even when someone is being treated, but by immediately reporting to the physician, full-blown episodes may be averted as the treatment will be adjusted.”
Myth 5. People with bipolar disorder are unpredictable – and therefore unreliable.
“Left untreated, the symptoms can be devastating. But extremes are not norms. In fact, people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are exceptionally creative and can live extraordinary lives. Often, for example, they are high achievers in the arts and hold high-level professional roles in the community. Unfortunately, due to stigma and discrimination, the public rarely sees this reality as patients are often afraid to share that they live with bipolar disorder.”