Almost six million Americans have bipolar disorder. But despite its prevalence, many people still harbor misconceptions about this deadly mental illness.
That unfortunate truth is something Terri Cheney knows all too well. A former entertainment lawyer, she hid her bipolar diagnosis because she feared she would be shunned if people found out. But now she's penned two books on bipolar, Manic and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar. Keep clicking as she separates bipolar fact from fiction...
FACT OR FICTION: Bipolar disorder is a sign of weakness
FICTION. Some people think depression and other symptoms of bipolar disorder are the result of a lack of willpower - and that bipolar people could "snap out of it" if they wanted to. In fact, bipolar disorder is the result of a disease that causes an imbalance of mood-controlling neurotransmitters in the brain. No one says, "Snap out of it!" to someone with diabetes. And it makes no sense to say that to someone with bipolar disorder.
FACT OR FICTION: People with bipolar disorder are violent
FICTION. People with bipolar disorder have committed violent crimes. But evidence, including a 2010 study published in "Archives of General Psychiatry," suggests that bipolar people tend to be no more violent than anyone else - unless they're also abusing drugs.
FACT OR FICTION: Mania and depression aren't the only symptoms
FACT. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. But mania and depression are only two "poles" on the range of mental states experienced by bipolar people. Others includes a lesser form of mania called "hypomania" - a not-entirely bad state marked by unusual levels of energy, productivity, and charisma - and what doctors call A "mixed state." Combining mania's frenzied restlessness with depression's despair, a mixed state is the worst part of being bipolar.
FACT OR FICTION: Bipolar depression is just a bad case of the blues
FICTION. "Bipolar depression occupies its own rung of hell," Cheney says. It can feel very physical, like having a severe case of the flu. It can also cause something akin to paralysis. "I can barely move, and spend most of my time trapped in bed," explains Cheney. And the intense self-hatred that comes with uncontrolled bipolar depression can lead to suicide. One in five people with bipolar disorder wind up killing themselves, making it the deadliest mental illness.
FACT OR FICTION: Mania is fun
FICTION. People tend to romanticize mania, the high-energy mental state associated with bipolar disorder. While it's true that mania often starts out on a positive note, filling people with energy and drive, that doesn't last. "Before long I'll be talking so fast no one can understand me, my thoughts will be racing out of control, and I'll turn belligerent and irritable, because nobody's moving quickly enough to get out of my way," Cheney says. "Ultimately, I'll either seduce someone I shouldn't, or spend all my hard-earned savings. It's not a pretty picture."
FACT OR FICTION: Bipolar disorder strikes children
FACT. For years, most psychiatrists believed that bipolar doesn't show up until people reach their early twenties. But since the mid-1990s, some psychiatrists have begun to think that children as well as adults can have bipolar disorder. To date, about one million kids have been given the diagnosis, though childhood diagnosis of the condition remains controversial. Cheney says she thinks she has been bipolar since an early age, saying, "I experienced repeated and extreme mood instability ever since I was a very young child, including a suicide attempt at age seven."
FACT OR FICTION: Bipolar disorder and substance abuse are linked
FACT. Sixty percent of people with bipolar disorder have a substance abuse problem, including some who abuse drugs or alcohol in a misguided attempt to "self-medicate." But substance abuse can be even more dangerous for bipolar people than people without a mental illness. Substance-abusing bipolar individuals are at greater risk for frequent mood cycling, poor compliance with medication regimens, risky behavior, and even suicide.
FACT OR FICTION: A bipolar diagnosis should never be divulged
FICTION. For some, letting others know that they have bipolar disorder can be the first step in a process of healing. It explodes the sense of shame some sufferers feel, although there can certainly be downsides as well. Cheney says revealing her own diagnosis brought extraordinary changes in her life. "I have been flooded with compassion and understanding from all across the globe," she says. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more on when and how to divulge a mental illness diagnosis.
FACT OR FICTION: Bipolar symptoms are 24/7
FICTION. Bipolar people aren't constantly ping-ponging between mania and depression, despite what many people think. Typically, there are episodes of mania and depression between extended periods of normal feelings and behavior. The length between these episodes vary between individuals. Cheney says she experiences short but frequent mood swings - typically three days of mania followed by four days of depression. "Following these swings," she says, "I can enjoy weeks or even months without significant symptoms."
FACT OR FICTION: There's no upside to bipolar disorder
FICTION. There's no question that bipolar disorder is a dangerous disease that complicates one's life. But often there are substantial rewards. Studies have linked bipolar disorder to creativity - not surprising given the many artists believed to have been bipolar. For Cheney, bipolar's greatest gift has been an enhanced sense of empathy. "I can identify with other people who struggle to overcome life's obstacles, and I have profound admiration for those who face their battles squarely."