Ending the Stigma Surrounding Bipolar Disorder
How does social stigma surrounding bipolar disorder impact those coping with the illness?
As a therapist, I have seen varying responses when people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Some individuals react with shock, worry, or fear, and others with relief and even hope. Some people may wonder if who they are has somehow changed. They may struggle with their identity as they think about the stereotypes they have internalized and the stigma surrounding the diagnosis. They may wonder if people will treat them differently or if they will start acting differently. Other individuals may experience relief that they finally have a reason for the way they have been feeling. Perhaps, empowered by the diagnosis, they feel ready to make a plan for treatment. Still others may experience any combination of these or other thoughts and feelings. The first step for anyone recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder is to educate themselves and commit to treatment.
Bipolar I disorder is characterized by at least one manic episode and, in most cases, periods of depression. Mania can look and feel different for each individual, but generally the sufferer thinks, feels, and behaves in ways that are not characteristic of them when they are not experiencing a manic episode. Bipolar II disorder is similar to bipolar I disorder in that the individual experiences mood cycling; however, they never reach full mania but rather experience hypomania. People do not choose to have a brain disorder just as they don’t choose to have cancer or a stroke. So, why do we shun individuals with bipolar disorder and not people who have been diagnosed with cancer? Shouldn’t family, friends, and society try to support and care for those coping with a mental illness in the same way we do for individuals with cancer? When people facing a cancer diagnosis have support, their stress is reduced and quality of life is improved (Weiss, J., 2003). The same is true for those coping with bipolar disorder.
Feeling stigmatized is common for those coping with bipolar disorder. Many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are discriminated against, feel stigmatized at work, and are even subjected to family members’ prejudices and stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness. No two individuals coping with bipolar disorder have the same experience, behaviors, or even the same symptoms. Bipolar disorder is an illness, not a sign of personal weakness. It’s like diabetes, heart disease, or any other health condition.
It is not entirely understood what causes bipolar disorder, but for many, it can be a very manageable condition. Sadly, many individuals who have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder are stigmatized by society and sometimes turn this stigma inwards. Many of my clients have shared their struggles with “pretending to be normal” amongst co-workers, in everyday life, and sometimes even amongst friends and family for fear that they will be viewed as “crazy,” “incompetent,” or not capable of making responsible decisions. Unfortunately, this intolerance may impact those affected by producing feelings of helplessness, apathy, denial, shame, and loneliness. When social stigma is internalized, individuals may believe these thoughts and feelings to be an accurate reflection of themselves. This can negatively impact the course of the illness and recovery.
How can we fight the stigma and empower individuals coping with bipolar disorder?
Education. Stigma, in general, often comes from a lack of understanding, and humans frequently fear what they don’t understand. Learning about bipolar disorder for both the individual coping with the illness, as well as providing education to their family, friends, and the community at-large, will be empowering for all. Once people understand more about this medical condition, they will begin to see it more realistically, rather than through the lens of their fears. In the media, individuals with bipolar disorder continue to be portrayed as “crazy,” criminals, or unable to function in society. These images are highly impactful on our society’s conceptualization of people with bipolar disorder and in turn their behaviors and treatment of those struggling.
If media depictions of people with bipolar disorder were more accurate and if representation was better, those coping with the condition would be more likely to seek treatment. Treatment may include medication, support groups, and psychotherapy to help individuals fight negative feelings and know that their mental illness doesn’t define them. This self-confidence will impact the way families, co-workers, and society will see people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and they will learn from it.
Another important thing that can be done is to change the way bipolar disorder is talked about. Some people may say things like, “Did you know that person is bipolar?” Referring to someone as being bipolar instead of as having bipolar disorder can impact the way an individual coping with the condition views themself and their identity. In addition, mental health research, policy changes, and advocacy are essential to improve the lives and treatment outcomes for those coping with bipolar disorder and mental illness in general.
Finally, replacing fear with compassion, as well as a willingness to work to educate ourselves, will serve to fight the stigma. We all have differences and by allowing ourselves to access empathy instead of judgement, we can view those coping with bipolar disorder, and all people for that matter, as human beings with their own unique struggles and stories to share.
Weis, J. (2003). Support groups for cancer patients. Supportive Care in Cancer, 11(12), 763-768. doi:10.1007/s00520-003-0536-7
Sarah Valdivieso, M.A., MFT is a Staff Therapist at our Center City and University City Offices in Philadelphia, PA; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7040.