Five myths about a bipolar diagnosis

By Hilary Smith | May 19, 2010

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Dealing with a bipolar diagnosis is hard. Dealing with parents, friends, and relatives who have slightly, er, misguided notions about what having bipolar entails can be even harder. You can help someone who is dealing with mental illness for the first time by being open, understanding, and well-informed—and by nixing any false beliefs and assumptions you have about bipolar.

There are many misconceptions about bipolar. Here are five myths and the surprising truths about a bipolar diagnosis:

1. Just because someone has been diagnosed with bipolar doesn’t mean that person is either depressed or manic 24/7. Lots of people with bipolar cruise through long periods (months or even years at a time) without any major episodes. During these stable periods, people with bipolar lead pretty normal lives, with pretty normal moods. The goal of treatment is to make sure these stable periods last for as long as possible, with as few manic or depressive episodes as possible in between. With the right combination of treatment, lifestyle adaptations, and plain old luck, people with bipolar can fend off future episodes and minimize their severity when they do happen.

2. Sure, some of the things people who are bipolar say and do are directly fueled by depression or mania, but please don’t attribute their every word and deed to having bipolar disorder. It can be tempting for friends and family members of people with bipolar to explain that person’s behavior, actions, and personality completely in terms of their disorder—not only their flaws, but also their successes. Statements like “She wouldn’t have won that poetry contest if she wasn’t hypomanic” or “He’s a reckless driver—he has bipolar” can be hurtful to the person with bipolar, not to mention unfair (there are a lot of excellent poets and terrible drivers out there, and they don’t all have bipolar).

3. Bipolar isn’t a dirty little secret, and it isn’t something to be ashamed of. If you’re curious about what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, just ask. Most of people who are bipolar would be happy to share some stories, and it helps to know others are interested (as opposed to freaked out). You can even ask for specific ways that you might help under certain circumstances. For example, “What are some ways I can make life easier for you when you’re depressed?” or “How can I let you know when I think you’re getting manic in a way you won’t find offensive?”

4. Dealing with bipolar disorder can be as exhausting and time-consuming as training for the Olympics. So be understanding if people who are bipolar need a little extra time to accomplish things that seem easy for other people. They may not finish college/move out/get a job/fulfill every hope and dream as quickly as you expect or would like. Then again, they’ve got a lot on their plates already. And they’ll get there … just have patience and faith, and offer your support.

5. If someone you love has bipolar disorder and is ill, that’s not the way he or she will always feel. They can recover. They can bounce back, find themselves again and get back on track. They can have happy, productive, meaningful, awesome lives. Yes, the awesomeness will be interspersed with periods of depression and mania, but that’s just how they roll.

So there it is. We don’t expect you to stay up late reading the latest research papers on GABA receptors, to drop psychiatry jargon like “mixed episode” and “affect,” or even to know how to pronounce the names of bipolar meds. Just keep in mind the truths behind the five bipolar myths. Stay cool, and remember that people are people first, not their diagnoses.

Hilary Smith is a brilliant young writer and artist living on the West Coast. She studied English Literature at the University of British Columbia, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after one too many insomniac bike rides in her junior year. She can be found online at