7 Myths About Bipolar Disorder, Debunked By Experts

The stigma is way too real.

by Carina Wolff
Originally Published: 
A woman holds a pink abstract painting in a windowsill garden. These seven myths about bipolar disor...
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When people hear "bipolar disorder," they might picture someone ecstatic one moment, and depressed another. Because mental health is so stigmatized and often poorly understood, people tend to believe myths about bipolar disorder, often perpetuated by pop culture. These myths are often taken as fact when people don't take the time to actually talk to someone with bipolar disorder or get clarifications from a mental health professional. What's worse? Myths make it that much harder for people with bipolar disorder to get the help and support they need.

"Mental illness is often misunderstood and inaccurately characterized, particularly a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder," Dr. Madeline William, PsyD, a psychologist who treats patients via telehealth app LiveHealth Online, tells Bustle. "In the same manner that ADHD and OCD are often normalized or misinterpreted, it is probable that you’ve overheard someone saying, 'I am feeling so bipolar today.' However, bipolar disorder is not a single action or feeling. It is a chronic disorder characterized by one of two specific patterns of emotional, behavioral, physiological, and interpersonal dysfunction."

Part of understanding mental health issues is putting aside your preconceptions and separating fact from fiction. Here are seven myths about bipolar disorder and the actual reality behind them.


Bipolar Disorder Is Just Mood Swings

It's a common misconception that having bipolar disorder means you're upset in one moment and happy in the next, but the reality is far more nuanced. "In order to meet criteria for the diagnosis of bipolar I or bipolar II disorder, one must have distinct major depressive episodes and manic/hypomanic episodes," says Dr. William. "However, each of these episodes must last for many days or even multiple weeks in order for them to be in line with this diagnosis. It is quite uncommon and atypical for a person to experience both of these episodes in the same week, let alone the same day."


During A Manic Episode, People With Bipolar Are Euphoric

Manic episodes are often characterized as "highs," with people staying up all hours, experiencing boundless energy and creativity. "It is true that one can experience an elevated mood during a manic or hypomanic episode, which can feel pleasant," says Dr. William. "However, they may instead experience irritability, inflated self-importance, excessive extroversion, and exaggerated behaviors, none of which are necessarily enjoyed or desired emotions or behaviors."


Any Emotion Someone With Bipolar Has Is A Result Of Their Disorder

Not every emotion that someone with bipolar disorder goes through is irrational or unwarranted. "In the same way that a diabetic person may have an earache that has nothing to do with their disorder, a person with bipolar disorder does not always experience moods due to their disorder," says Dr. William. "Everyone has their good and bad moments or days. If a person in your life has bipolar disorder and they seem down, angry, or upset, start by asking questions and showing concern, rather than assuming what may be causing their upset."


Bipolar Disorder Means You'll Definitely Go Through Mania

Not everyone with bipolar disorder will have had a manic episode. "Some people may simply experience cycles of low mood and even mood," psychiatrist Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD, tells Bustle. "Others may experience periods of increased irritability and productivity — but never the happy high we all associate with bipolar."


The Highs & Lows Are Equal

Unfortunately, it's common for bipolar patients to spend way more time being in a depressed, low state than in mania. "Bipolar tends not to be a fair disease, and while the highs can be nice, the lows are awful, and often occur far longer and more often," says Dr. Dimitriu.


Bipolar Disorder Is Untreatable

Bipolar disorder can be treated. "A combination of psychotherapy, psychoeducation, and medication has been found to be highly effective in treating symptoms of bipolar disorder," says Dr. William. "Medication can include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and/or antipsychotics, and must be taken as directed, which usually means that they are not discontinued or rapidly altered in dosage or frequency. Psychotherapy can allow for time to process emotional episodes and devise effective coping strategies to help manage the symptoms."


Bipolar Disorder Is Only Treated With Medication

"Although medications are essential during the most severe phases of an episode, cognitive-behavior therapy can help to regulate moods during other phases of the condition," Stephen P. Hinshaw, Ph.D., author of Another Kind of Madness: A Journey through the Stigma and Hope of Mental Illness, tells Bustle. "Family therapy is quite helpful for providing support to parents, children, and siblings, and for enhancing family stability. Group therapy can really help, through peer monitoring and support, with motivating people to remain on their medications."

Like many mental health issues, bipolar disorder tends to be misunderstood, but dispelling these myths can help us better understand the illness — and people who live with it.


Dr. Madeline William, PsyD

Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD

Stephen P. Hinshaw, Ph.D.

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