Bipolar Disorder: Getting Your Facts Straight

Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million Americans, and as the number of cases continues to rise, so do the myths associated with it. Bipolar disorder, commonly referred to as manic-depressive disorder, is a mood disorder characterized by individual experiencing extreme manic episodes which are followed by equally extreme depressive episodes. The term bipolar refers to the cycling between high and low episodes (poles). There is an increased awareness of bipolar disorder due to an increased diagnosis rate; but, the increased awareness is leading to the development of numerous myths surrounding the disorder. In a recently published article, “8 Myths about Bipolar Disorder,” Web MD discusses and relieves the most common myths about bipolar disorder.

Myth 1: Bipolar disorder is a rare condition

Not true. Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million Americans a year. Recently, researchers looked at the number of office visits with a bipolar disorder diagnosis in 1994-1995 and 2002-2003 in the U.S. They found that the number of office-based visits quadrupled for children and nearly doubled for adults from the first time period to the second.

Myth 2: Bipolar disorder is just another name for mood swings

Not true. The mood swings associated with bipolar disorder are very different than those of people without the condition. The mood swings associated with bipolar disorder are more severe, longer lasting and pose a heavy strain on the patient’s day to day life.

Myth 3: People with bipolar disorder shift back and forth from depression to mania very often.

Not true. This myth refers to the Jekyll and Hyde scenario in which an individual will shift from an extreme manic state to an extremely depressive state on a dime. This is the oldest and most popular myth associated with the Bipolar disorder. There are patients that shift back and forth more quickly than others, but that is not a typical pattern. Generally, the medication a patient takes not only controls the severity of their states but also the transition period between them; ensuring a subtle if at all noticeable, change.

Myth 4: When they’re in the manic phase, people with bipolar disorder are often very happy

True for some. A person with bipolar disorder may enter the manic phase happy but not stay that way. Additionally, manic phases vary from to person to person; one’s manic phase may seem as another’s depressive phase. The article also discusses multiple other factors that contribute to the level of a patient’s manic state. Some of these include: alcohol, drugs, diet and exercise but all effects are completely based on the individual patient.

Myth 5: There is a bipolar test

Not true. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder depends on the physician taking a careful patient history, asking about symptoms over time and trends in the patient’s family.

Myth 6: Bipolar disorder can’t be diagnosed until age 18

Not true.In fact, many adult patients report having symptoms before age 18. But it is true that it’s more difficult to diagnose it in children, because of varying patterns of the disorder. Typical childhood behavior – such as having a tantrum and recovering quickly– can also make it difficult to diagnose the condition in children.

Myth 7: People with bipolar disorder should not take antidepressants

Not true.  The myth originated from a unique case in which regarding individuals who were diagnosed with both depression and bipolar disorder. The concern is that if they take antidepressants they could flip into an extreme state of mania. In a study published by The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of doctors randomly assigned 366 patients with bipolar disorder to a treatment of mood stabilizer drugs and placebo or to mood stabilizer drugs and an antidepressant. After following up with them 26 weeks, they found absolutely no difference between groups of patients in regards to a shift from depression to mania. Some people just need drugs, it is crucial, however, to consult a physician to attain accurate dosages and types

Myth 8: Aside from taking medication and engaging in psychotherapy or “talk therapy,” a person with bipolar disorder has few options for controlling the condition

Not true. Medications and therapy is important, but paying attention to lifestyle choices can also have a large impact. Ken Duckworth, MD tells WebMD that “Active strategies, such as getting regular aerobic exercise, keeping a regular bedtime, eating a healthful diet, and paying attention to personal warning signs that a shift to depression or mania is coming can all help a person manage bipolar disorder.”

Bipolar is a very serious disorder, but thanks to technological advances, it does not have to be as much of a hindrance on a patient’s life as it once was. To find out more about bipolar disorder and all psychiatric disorders visit NorthShore University HealthSystem’s neuroscience department.