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What Bipolar is Not

...and what all the jokes are really costing

Are you tired of people throwing the word Bipolar around incorrectly? It’s been too much of a buzzword for quite some time now, and has escalated from mildly annoying to downright damaging. It is reinforcing the already present stigma of mental illness, therefore creating further barriers for people needing treatment.

The latest mildly annoying example for me was last week in a hair salon. A worker actually referred to the faucet as bipolar when it went from hot to cold a few times. “This sink is bipolar!” she exclaimed. Really? How might this feel to the person sitting nearby that is actually dealing with this condition or has a family member struggling with this? Rather insensitive to say the least…

The latest example of downright damaging is a client I sat with this week who refuses to accept this diagnosis because of the social stigma. “Oh, everyone calls everyone bipolar; it’s just an excuse for bad behavior”. On goes denial, rationalization, and intense shame. While she meets the criterion for this diagnosis, has major consequences from a manic episode, she refuses to be labeled and treated. Untreated bipolar illness results in legal consequences, self-medication via drug and alcohol abuse, harmful behaviors, and loss of relationships. This is damaging for her and damaging for our society.

And, by the way, the useage of this word is incorrect. Let’s clarify what bipolar is not. Not moodiness, not someone changing their mind a lot, not the highs & lows of the day. It is rather, a physiological brain chemical imbalance in the body causing substantial periods - weeks or months, of depression, and at least one manic episode. Maybe only one. A manic phase is an elevated mood that can last days or weeks accompanied by the following:

uncharacteristic energy, wakefulness, productivity, fascination with a particular project (sudden interest bordering obsession), impulsivity (could be spending, traveling, sex), racing thought patterns, to name a few. The crashing phase of this may include confusion, irritability, agitation, legal/financial/relationship consequences, memory lapse and more.

Here’s the important piece: once in the manic phase, the person cannot recognize their own symptoms. It is imperative to have someone they trust take charge so they can get help early in the cycle. There are pharmacological and holistic treatments available now that makes this quite manageable. Early diagnosis, consistent treatment, family support all contribute to successful management of this illness.

Let’s not drag the term through the mud. Let’s not misconstrue bipolar as moodiness or craziness. Can we have a little more sensitivity, especially at a time when we have realized raising awareness of mental illness is beneficial to our communities, schools, and our society? Stay tuned at and learn to recognize symptoms of different disorders, and help someone you know.

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