Moving Past the Stigma While Living with Bipolar Disorder
March 30, 2022 is World Bipolar Day, an annual day dedicated to destigmatization and education around bipolar disorder. This day is an opportunity to have an earnest conversation about bipolar disorder: what it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s perfectly possible to live a meaningful, fulfilling life with the diagnosis.
Why is bipolar disorder stigmatized?
Almost 3 million Americans live with bipolar disorder, yet so much about it is misunderstood by the public. Let’s look at three of the most common reasons bipolar disorder is stigmatized.
Much of the stigma is attributable to a fundamental misunderstanding of what bipolar disorder is. This lack of education about the condition has caused laypeople to label any sort of erratic, emotional, or self-destructive behavior as “being bipolar,” which we now know to be quite offensive and patently false.
Those who stigmatize bipolar disorder also fail to recognize its prevalence. Millions of people worldwide live with bipolar disorder, and it is often managed well with a combination of medication and therapy. Most people with the disorder never exhibit the stereotypical, stigmatizing signs, and those that do find themselves struggling need support, not judgment.
People with bipolar disorder historically have not been well portrayed in movies, books, and TV programs. Studies have shown that bipolar portrayal in media is often negative. Frequently when a public figure or celebrity with the diagnosis does anything controversial, people quickly label them and attribute the questionable behavior to their diagnosis.
Kanye West, for example, has been outspoken about his bipolar disorder. While it’s a step in the right direction to have open and earnest conversations about mental health, we still have a long way to go in making sure the dialogue is productive and educational, not dismissive or shaming.
Thankfully, society is largely moving away from casually tossing out serious medical diagnoses as insults or punchlines. But there is still plenty of work to be done to break down the misconceptions about many mental health issues, including bipolar disorder.
The spectrum of diagnoses
Another common cause of stigma is the fact that bipolar disorder looks different from person to person. There are three distinct types of bipolar disorder (bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia), which all have unique features. Even people with the same diagnosis will have varying symptoms. It can be difficult for someone not intimately connected to the disorder to fully understand what bipolar looks like.
Many people only come to understand what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder when they’re faced with it themselves or when someone they love is diagnosed. This means that the public has little understanding about bipolar disorder, which increases the stigma and allows the sensationalized stereotypes to shape the narrative of the diagnosis.
How can you move past the stigma during your mental health journey?
Stigmatization is dangerous for mental health and recovery because people who fear being labeled and judged are less likely to seek help. Whether or not you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there are ways that we can all work toward deconstructing the myths and progress in our understanding of how bipolar disorder impacts our lives and the lives of those we care about.
Educate family and friends
Sometimes the best thing to do is educate the people around you. One person can’t single-handedly end worldwide stigmatization, but you can demystify the disorder for those in your inner circle. Helpful links, books, videos, and podcasts can be great resources for loved ones to learn how to provide support. There are even family groups and events for support and understanding.
Actively deconstruct the myths surrounding bipolar.
As previously mentioned, bipolar disorder manifests itself differently for everybody. There is a broad bipolar spectrum, and it’s neither reasonable nor realistic to expect someone to follow a specific pattern or exhibit particular symptoms.
Recognize and heal from internalized bipolar stigma.
Practicing mindfulness about how you internalize your perceptions of bipolar disorder can be a vital tool in your mental health journey.
A few reflective questions to ask yourself:
- How have I lacked compassion for myself and my mental health?
- In what ways have I allowed others to treat me with disrespect or without empathy based on their perception of my mental health? In what ways have I treated myself with disrespect or without kindness?
- What misinformation have I had to unlearn about bipolar disorder as I become more educated about the diagnosis?
World Bipolar Day is dedicated to dismantling the stigma of bipolar disorder, and there’s still plenty of work to be done. If you’re interested in learning more about bipolar disorder and living a rich life with the diagnosis, listen to Ana Agarrat’s beautiful story as part of our ongoing podcast series, Mental Note.