I remember when I first was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, specifically bipolar II disorder. The diagnosis just made sense and after years of struggling with medication that wasn’t helping me, I was finally left with some hope that maybe I could manage my emotions better. Living with bipolar disorder can be difficult but with the right medication and therapy, I am able to move past the tough times and celebrate the good. 

However, one unnecessary thing that has made it more difficult is the stigma attached to this mental illness. The stereotypes from the media and pop culture and just the everyday language people use can be emotionally crippling, harmful, and invalidating to those of us with a real, lived experience with it. 

I decided I should clear up some myths around bipolar disorder and maybe even help to change its reputation from dangerous, psychopathic, or criminal to a valid, real mental illness that deserves empathy. 

1. Having bipolar disorder means you’re just moody

An illustrated smiling cloud going from stormy to clear.
[Image Description: An illustrated smiling cloud going from stormy to clear. ] Via Giphy
Too often have I heard people use bipolar disorder as an adjective to describe someone who is moody. Those of us living with bipolar disorder do experience highs (mania/hypomania) and lows (depression). However, it’s different from how the everyday mood fluctuates. These highs and lows are often debilitating and can last a few days, weeks, or months. They affect our daily functioning on such an extreme level, it’s not easy to always behave and function as usual. 

2. There is only one type of bipolar disorder

An illustration of the number four.
[Image Description: An illustration of the number four.] Via Giphy
There are four types of bipolar disorder, including bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder, and other types where symptoms are experienced due to medical conditions or substance abuse. Bipolar I disorder is characterized by mania and depression. Bipolar II disorder includes hypomania, a milder form of mania, and depression. Cyclothymic disorder is a milder form with cyclical mood swings. 

3. Having bipolar disorder means you’re dangerous

A gif of an illustrated TV with the words "break the stigma".
[Image Description: A gif of an illustrated TV with the words “break the stigma”.] Via Giphy
TV series and films often tell stories that criminalize mental illnesses, especially bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder are shown to be murderous, off-the-hinges, and overall dangerous to society. The truth is that mental illness is not the only factor that should be blamed for violence. 

4. Bipolar disorder is rare

A gif of an illustrated woman holding a sign reading "you are not alone".
[Image Description: A gif of an illustrated woman holding a sign reading “you are not alone”.] Via Giphy
It’s often thought that a small minority has bipolar disorder and so it’s considered that this small minority is dangerous and criminal. However, 46 million people have bipolar disorder globally and these statistics only include the people who were able to seek treatment and be diagnosed. It’s much more common and affects more ordinary people than we may think.

5. You just need exercise, a good diet, and a good attitude to cure bipolar disorder

A gif of an illustrated medicine bottle and the words that read "take your meds".
[Image Description: A gif of an illustrated medicine bottle and words that read “take your meds”.] Via Giphy
This is harmful to say to someone with any mental illness, as it puts the blame on the person for their symptoms. Bipolar disorder does not have a cure because its causes are still elusive and uncertain. This is why it’s important to have ways to manage and cope with symptoms, including therapy, medication, and overall taking care of yourself and your health.

6. People with bipolar disorder only experience either mania or depression

A gif of an illustrated woman with scribblings around her head.
[Image Description: A gif of an illustrated woman with scribblings around her head.] Via Giphy
Manic and depressive episodes are indicative of bipolar I disorder. Bipolar II disorder often experiences depression and a less extreme form of mania called hypomania. Mixed episodes are also common where both mania and depression occur simultaneously. The periods of these emotions are also irregular and differ in frequency from person to person.

7. Kids can’t get bipolar disorder

A gif with the words "mental health matters".
[Image description: A gif with the words “mental health matters”.] Via Giphy
Another one of the myths about bipolar disorder is that it’s only an adult mental illness. But children and teens can also have bipolar disorder. It can often be accompanied by other mental illnesses such as ADHD and anxiety disorders. 

What is important to remember about any mental illness is that it’s a valid experience. It can be difficult but we can still function with the treatment that is best for us. Bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of.

My wish is that films, television series, and the media realize this and create works that showcase both the normalcy and complexity of it — because I am tired of sharing my diagnosis and people making incorrect assumptions. Let’s normalize educating ourselves about what we’re unfamiliar with and empathizing with what we don’t experience. This is the only way we as a society can undergo the radical growth we need.

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  • Tamia Adolph

    Tamia Adolph is a writer and journalist, who writes poetry and fiction writing under the pseudonym, Imogene Mist. She is the founder of a mental health awareness organization called #MeTooButImStillHere, which aims to advocate for mental illness in Africa. She holds a BA in Journalism and BA (Honours) in English Literature. Currently, she is completing her Masters in English Literature. Her passions include musicals, environmentalism, and all forms of art.