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Busting 10 Common Myths about Bipolar Disorder

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder, making it difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disease and when professional intervention is needed. Unfortunately, many people have a stigma toward it, which mentality isolates the people who need support most. 

Awakenings Treatment Center works with people who have bipolar disorder and other co-occurring conditions like substance abuse. We see firsthand how a lifetime of being misunderstood takes a toll on people. To that end, we have busted the ten most common myths about bipolar disorder. 

Myth 1. Bipolar disorder is rare. 

Sadly, it is not rare. It is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world. Globally, an estimated 46 million people have bipolar disorder, with rates being slightly higher in females. Depression and anxiety disorders are the only mental health conditions that are more prevalent while eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse are less common. 

The median age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25, though it can appear much earlier or much later in life. Most cases are considered severe, while a small percentage are considered moderate. Interestingly enough, more than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the illness which indicates that it has a genetic component. 

Myth 2. People with bipolar disorder are just moody. 

When people hear of bipolar disorder, they generally think of a person experiencing extreme highs and lows. While this is true to some degree, bipolar is much more complex than this. It involves a wide range of symptoms like: 

  • Sadness, anger or guilt
  • Risk-taking behaviors 
  • Hyperactivity or impulsivity 
  • Depression
  • Paranoia 
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss or weight gain 

People with this disorder have manic episodes where they experience elevated moods and then periods of depression. These episodes can last for days or weeks at a time and be incredibly debilitating. How long these episodes last depend on the individual, the severity of their symptoms and their gender. 

Myth 3. Bipolar disorder affects men and women the same. 

Even though bipolar disorder occurs in men and women in almost equal numbers, the illness affects them differently. Women are more likely to experience rapid cycling than men, and they have more depressive episodes and more mixed episodes than men with the illness. It’s possible that hormones are to blame. 

That said, bipolar disorder typically starts earlier and is more severe in men. Manic episodes are usually more pronounced as well and may include yelling, fighting or getting physical. This is one of the reasons why men are more likely to land in jail or be hospitalized when going through a manic episode. 

man feeling worried

Myth 4. There is only one type of bipolar disorder. 

Many people are surprised to learn that there is more than one type of bipolar disorder. According to the DSM-5, there are four types of bipolar disorder. By familiarizing yourself with them, you can more accurately identify this illness in someone who has trouble stabilizing their mood. 

  • Bipolar I. Known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar I is diagnosed when a person experiences at least one manic episode in their life. Most people with bipolar I also suffer from periods of depression.
  • Bipolar II. Bipolar II is diagnosed when a person cycles between high and low moods over time. However, the “high” moods never reach full-blown mania. Depressive episodes often occur frequently. 
  • Cyclothymic disorder. Cyclothymia is characterized by distinct episodes of hypomania (elevated mood and euphoria) and depressive symptoms. This lasts over a period of two years. 
  • Bipolar disorder not otherwise specified. Any bipolar-like behavior that does not fit the pattern of the other diagnoses is put in this category. 

Myth 5. Suicide is not a concern for people with bipolar disorder. 

Sadly, suicide is a major concern for people with bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder results in a 9.2-year reduction in expected lifespan. 

Even though twice as many women attempt suicide, it’s the men who complete almost 75 percent of all suicides. The people most at risk of attempting suicide are those who aren’t receiving treatment. However, there are other risk factors as well such as substance abuse or a history of physical or sexual abuse. 

Myth 6. Mania is the most common symptom of bipolar disorder. 

It’s a common belief that a person has long periods of mania where they’re happy, buying new things and engaging in risky behaviors. The reality is that states of mania and hypomania are rare. Most of the time, people with bipolar disorder experience depressive symptoms. This is why this disorder is commonly misdiagnosed for depression. 

It’s also important to point out that mania is not the enjoyable, productive and fun time that it may appear to be. Even though a manic person may feel very good, this can also be uncomfortable and unpleasant. People often report feeling restless, uncertain and irritable, especially if there are psychotic symptoms happening as well. 

Furthermore, a manic episode can cause some people to say or do things they normally wouldn’t. This can have a negative impact on their relationships, finances, and reputation. For example, a person may spend all their money or act out at a holiday work party. 

Myth 7.  The only way to treat bipolar disorder is with medication.

Medication is an important treatment option but, there are many other treatments that work well with medication. We’ll break down the various treatment options below. 

  • Medication. As the first line of defense, medications are prescribed to manage the mood and control symptoms. Medicines include anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.
  • Therapies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people learn how to recognize negative thoughts and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Other options include support groups, family therapy and psychotherapy. 
  • Lifestyle management. It’s important for people with this disorder to regulate their lifestyles to reduce mood episodes. This includes following a regular schedule for eating, sleeping and exercising. 
  • Education. Understanding the illness and its complications helps people deal with setbacks. Education is also important for family members. 

woman feeling sad

Myth 8. Treatment for bipolar disorder can eventually stop. 

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, so it’s recommended to stay on your medications even when you’re feeling great. If you stop your medication, you could experience withdrawal effects or your symptoms may return or worsen. 

Although there is no cure, people with the condition can experience long periods when they are symptom-free. If the current treatment regimen is not working as well as it should, this does not mean that treatment has failed. All it means is that the person needs a new combination of therapy and medications.

In addition to staying on the right medications and seeking counseling, there are many effective self-care management strategies that keep symptoms at bay. These can include: 

  • Creating a good work-life balance
  • Building positive relationships
  • Eating a balanced diet 
  • Exercising regularly 
  • Getting enough rest at night 

Myth 9. Diagnosing bipolar disorder is easy. 

Diagnosing bipolar disorder is difficult. There is no single test that tells whether a person has bipolar disorder, and the symptoms can vary between individuals. Therefore, doctors use a combination of physical examinations and lab testing to rule out other conditions to diagnose this mental health disorder. 

However, it's not always common for people to recognize that something is wrong. Some are in denial while others don’t know where to turn for help. This is why it’s important for family and friends to recognize the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder and when to seek help. Fortunately, testing is non-invasive and includes: 

  • Keeping a mood journal
  • Interviewing family members 
  • Observing mood and behavioral symptoms 
  • Physical examination 
  • Assessing risk factors 

Myth 10. Substance abuse causes bipolar disorder. 

Substance abuse and bipolar disorder do have a relationship, but this does not mean that one directly causes the other. People with no history of mental illness can develop a disorder that was previously dormant after abusing drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, people who are bipolar may abuse drugs and alcohol to cope with the symptoms. 

This disorder does not form from a single cause but likely several: genetics, biology, and environment. Drugs and alcohol would fall under the “environment” category. Abusing drugs and alcohol puts people in unhealthy, high-risk environments. It can also lead to changes in the brain that encourages compulsive, drug-seeking behavior. 

Thankfully, it's possible to successfully treat this disorder and addiction. Dual diagnosis treatment centers have the knowledge and resources to treat these individuals. The goal of treatment is to get clients clean and sober, treat the bipolar disorder and learn healthy ways of coping. 

Start Treatment

If you or someone you love is struggling with bipolar disorder, please contact Awakenings Treatment Center today. Our treatment center specializes in this disorder --- we are comfortable working with people who have this condition. We treat clients with medication, psychoeducation, skills training and support with daily living tasks. 

Furthermore, we make individual and group therapies a priority so that clients can explore themselves further. They learn how to recognize their symptoms, manage mood swings and practice self-care. When combined with the right medications and cutting-edge neuroscientific treatments, our clients are able to lead active, fulfilling lives.