I recently read something about celebrities and Bipolar Disorder where Bipolar Disorder was being described as a ‘fashionable diagnosis’ and ‘the flu of mental health’. I practically blew my top. This after hearing people say things like ‘everyone is bipolar these days’, ‘the weather is so bipolar’, ‘I think being bipolar is awesome’.
Generally, I have learned to keep my cool when I am faced with ignorant statements like these. Sometimes I would come out of my Bipolar closet and take time to educate the uneducated, but often I just don’t respond to a statement like that. However, hearing the chronic mental illness that my broken mind cannot get rid of being compared to the flu (I mean, FLU), really hit a nerve. But before I turn this post into a rant against those who I deem to be the ignorant and uneducated, it is worth looking at WHY a statement like that would even be made.
In this article about myths about Bipolar Disorder, the myth right at the top reads:’ Bipolar Disorder is a rare condition.’ A survey that was done found that at least 2.4% of the world’s population have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, (245 million people) with less than half of those diagnosed actually receiving treatment. Although the percentage is actually higher than one would think, the reality is that about 4% of the world population suffers from Depression, which is also the second-leading cause of disability worldwide. We should also keep in mind that these statistics don’t include populations that still deny the very existence of Depression. What about Schizophrenia? 1.1% of the population. If you look at how many people are affected worldwide by these and other mental illnesses, it’s clear that it’s a much bigger problem than most people realise. I can’t help but wonder why there is still so much stigma attached to these illnesses.
Those who say that Bipolar Disorder is the flu of mental health are obviously not referring to statistics, and they might be snarky about it, but in a way they are not wrong. It is true that more people have Bipolar Disorder now than ever before. This is simply because the illness cannot be cured. So it makes sense that not as many people with Bipolar Disorder die as are being diagnosed daily, especially since the general public is now more aware than before and health professionals have become better at diagnosing it. Personally I’m a word person, but to me this sounds like simple mathematics.
Thanks to celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and more recently Demi Lovato coming out of the bipolar closet, the illness has received more media coverage in recent years. You just have to search ‘Celebrities with Bipolar Disorder’ to find a whole list. What we ‘regular people’ have to keep in mind is the kind of lifestyle that celebrities lead. With this I don’t mean drugs and parties and alcohol (although that is part of the lifestyle in many cases). The typical lifestyle of an entertainer includes a lot of travelling across different time zones, lack of sleep, high stress, high pressure, ridiculous work hours, sporadic eating and other things that would cause problems to the most stable person’s mental health. Place someone with just the smallest predisposition to Bipolar Disorder in a life like that and chances are they’ll get it, and struggle immensely with recovery and becoming stable. An unstructured and unhealthy lifestyle like that is a recipe for disaster if you suffer from Bipolar Disorder.
One of the big and pressing questions is whether Bipolar Disorder was previously under-diagnosed or is now over-diagnosed. Since it took me, doctors and psychologists about ten years to figure out what was actually wrong with me, my personal opinion is that the illness is still under-diagnosed. Until there are blood tests or a brain scan that can conclusively diagnosed mental illnesses, correct diagnosis will always be a problem. After what I came to know as an ‘episode’ that landed me in the hospital, the psychiatrist assigned to me immediately thought that I had Bipolar Disorder, but since I couldn’t give him the information and history he needed, mostly because I didn’t really understand what he wanted to know, the official diagnoses took a month of hospitalisation, loads of talking an playing around with different medications. It was more a case of ‘since all this bipolar medication has made you better, you must be Bipolar’. I think that is often the case. It is still very much a diagnosis of exclusion.
But getting back to the issue of over- or under-diagnosis, there are mental health professionals that have done studies and reached the conclusion that psychiatrists might have become a bit overly enthusiastic with their diagnosis. On the flipside though, is it better to treat someone with mood stabilisers when you suspect that they have Bipolar Disorder, or to treat them with anti-depressants and risk them becoming manic (which is what happened to me, btw)?
The term ‘bipolar’ is also thrown around very easily to describe any state or being that is not seen as ‘unipolar’. Perhaps Manic Depression is then still a better name for it. I think people are much more likely to describe the weather as bipolar than as having Manic Depression.
I’m of the opinion that all the reasons mentioned above and the fact that more people are being correctly diagnosed now creates the illusion that it has become an illness that is no worse than the flu. A larger percentage of those living with mental illness have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, yes, but I still find the statement offensive; like people think that I can just take a few pills, rest and get over it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.