What You Should Know About Bipolar Depression

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There are a lot of misconceptions about bipolar depression.

Bipolar Disorder Is More Common Than You Think

While nearly all mental illnesses are misunderstood to some degree, bipolar disorder is one of the worst due to the sheer amount of misconceptions and myths floating around about the it. Many people think of it as a very rare condition, but roughly 2.8 percent of adults living in the United States have had bipolar disorder in the last year while 4.4 percent of U.S. adults have had it at some point in their life. Whether they've told you or not, there's a good chance that you know at least a few people with bipolar people.

It can be very difficult to live under the shadow of bipolar disorder. The illness itself can be difficult to live with, but the stigma and sheer number of misconceptions only compound everything and make it worse. This article strives to set at least a few things straight by presenting facts about bipolar disorder. If someone in your life has bipolar disorder, you owe it to them to educate yourself about their condition and show them you support them no matter what.

1. People With Bipolar Can Still Live Meaningful Lives

There is a really damaging belief that, once you get diagnosed as being bipolar, your life is over. It can be incredibly damaging to be told or treated as you are no longer a whole person, especially by your loved ones. It's even worse when you've only recently been diagnosed and everything is still new to you. Larry Fricks, the peer services vice president for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, says, "I can’t tell you how devastating it was to believe my life was over." Fricks was diagnosed in 1984.

While there isn't a cure for bipolar disorder, it is treatable. Many people with bipolar disorder live full, happy lives. Frick adds, "You don’t have to have your life taken over by a mental illness. You’re still a person with hopes and dreams and you can get those. Bipolar disorder has a very high recovery rate if you are proactive about managing your illness."

2. One Size Fits All

Just because you've known another person bipolar disorder doesn't mean another person's symptoms will be the same. Bipolar manifests in everyone differently just like any other illness. There are actually four basic types of bipolar disorder, including Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymia, and Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified. Some people never even have manic episodes and instead have episodes of hypomania, a milder form of mania. In some cases, you may not even know a person had bipolar disorder unless they told you.

3. Your Mood Swings Are Not the Same As Bipolar Disorder

Most people have probably heard someone joke about being bipolar because they get mood swings. They're not the same thing. Psychiatrist Amit Anand, MD, says, "Mood swings happen for many different reasons, including the weather, the menstrual cycle, common medications like steroids, and substance use." ADHD, some personality disorder, autoimmune disorders, hormone disorders, and neurological problems can also cause mood swings that are all different from the swings seen in bipolar disorder. With bipolar disorder, "the illness represents a change from the usual self...Also, depression lasts for several weeks at a time, and mania lasts for several days at a time. We look for a season of summer — not one hot day."

Calling all mood swings "bipolar" delegitimizes the reality of the illness people living with it face every single day and furthers the stigma that it is something we can control. It's a mental illness like PTSD or anxiety and needs to be treated like any other illness, not belittled.

4. It's Constant Shifts Between Highs and Lows

While folks with bipolar disorder do experience both manic and depressive or hypomanic and depressive episodes, it's much more complicated than that. For starters, most people don't "constantly" shift between episodes, though the director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Gary Sachs, MD, says that some do "shift" between episodes faster than other people. However, "the average bipolar patient will be depressed more often [than manic]."

Mania itself is also pretty misunderstood. Many people think of it as simply being extremely happy, but that isn't true for everyone. Research scientist Thomas E. Smith, MD, says, "The hallmark of mania is a euphoric or elevated mood..."But a significant number of people become edgy and irritable as the mania progresses." CEO of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago, Su Bergeson, adds that, "Many people are actually frightened when they go into mania." That's a far cry from feeling overjoyed.

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