Though we might have come a long way in reducing the stigma around mental-health conditions, there’s still a long way to go.
But anything that contributes to a better understanding of certain conditions is a good thing, and one of those occasions came about last week when Mariah Carey went public with her bipolar diagnosis. Mariah is one of the most successful, iconic and recognisable female singers in the world. To have her speak so candidly about a condition that is still relatively misunderstood is a big deal.
Mariah, who has bipolar II disorder and is now having therapy and taking medication, told People magazine: ‘I’m just in a really good place right now, where I’m comfortable discussing my struggles… I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone.’
We couldn’t agree more. With this in mind, we spoke to Rethink Mental Illness and BUPA about the remaining misconceptions which need to be eradicated.
1 That all bipolar disorders are the same
Firstly, there are two types of primary bipolar diagnoses: bipolar I and bipolar II, and Rethink says ‘everyone with bipolar disorder will have different levels of symptoms’. The NHS (the UK’s National Health System) adds that some people might only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime, while others might have more.
Bipolar is ‘traditionally signified by depressive lows and manic highs’, Rethink says. ‘Type 1 is typified by higher levels of mania and the existence of psychosis so this is usually more severe than type 2.’
2 That It’s A Personality Disorder
It’s not a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. It is instead a disorder that primarily affects moods.
3 That It Just Means ‘Bad Mood Swings’
Though it may be a mood disorder, it is not a case of simply having mood swings – which, let’s be honest, we all get.
‘We all experience good and bad moods from time to time, but for someone with bipolar, mood changes are often more severe, varying from excitement and elation (known as mania) to depression and despair,’ Pablo Vandenabeele, BUPA‘s clinical director of mental health says. ‘Each mood may last several weeks or there might be long stable periods. As with all mental-health issues, mood changes should be taken seriously and not oversimplified or stigmatised as just “mood swings”.’
What is also damaging is when people use the word ‘bipolar’ to describe a mood swing, similar to the way people have long used ‘OCD’ to describe tidiness, when the condition is so much more complex than that.
Eleanor Segall, a writer and blogger who has bipolar I, explained to why using the phrase ‘you’re so bipolar’ is incredibly problematic: ‘Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, but we don’t all have ups and downs with our moods constantly and we don’t all rapid-cycle between moods either. To use this phrase is ignorant and belittles the condition.’
4 Being Really Happy is One of the Symptoms
The ‘manic high’ symptom of bipolar doesn’t equate to being really, really happy, Rethink explains.
‘It involves feeling constantly restless and an inability to feel calm. It can lead to delusional thoughts (like feeling invulnerable) and reckless behaviour that puts the person at risk of endangering themselves.’
Vandenabeele adds that the most widely held misconceptions around the illness revolve around the manic stage of the condition.
‘Many people believe that all bipolar patients experience euphoric highs,’ he says. ‘But, in reality, the manic phase can often express itself as overconfidence, irritability or confusion.’
5 You’re Ill All The Time
Eleanor only experienced psychosis, where her delusions made her lose touch with reality, for a few months before it then passed. She’s since had long periods of feeling fine – a diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re cast to a lifetime of illness.
‘Most people with bipolar I or bipolar II disorder can stay well for long periods on medication, with a good support network and therapeutic plan,’ she says. ‘Those who do not take medication and need to, may get unwell. However, most of the time, and in my own case, you can go for long periods between severe mental illness.’
6 All Medication Comes With Bad Side Effects
Some antidepressant medication can come with side effects, yes. But this is not the case with all medication, and quite often it comes down to the individual or through a trial-and-error process to see which medicine works best for you.
Eleanor says that her antipsychotic medication came with some side effects but ultimately, it meant she could get better. Remember to talk to your doctor or psychiatrist to find the right medication for you.
7 It Stops You from Living A Normal Life
This, of course, is absolutely not true. Just like with any illness, if it’s managed and you have the right medication and care, you can lead a great, normal, regular life.
Eleanor is living proof that this isn’t the case, as is Mariah Carey, of course.
‘I still got my A levels, went to university, travelled and I work now as a freelance journalist,’ Eleanor says. ‘There is a misconception that having bipolar disorder means you cannot live a normal, fulfilled life. People think that you will not be able to work, achieve academically, have a family or hold down a relationship. This misconception is false. The disorder affects everyone differently and many do go on to achieve and be successful in what they want to do.’
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan UK