The Stigma Against Bipolar Disorder Can Sometimes Be Worse Than the Disorder Itself

Despite being a chronic medical disorder, bipolar disorder and individuals with bipolar disorder face massive amounts of crippling stigma that can sometimes be more stressful than the condition itself.

Ever since I received my diagnosis of Bipolar type II disorder in April of 2018, my life and how I see the world completely changed. Prior to my diagnosis, I had many misconceptions about bipolar disorder myself. I was also completely incognizant of the stigma attached to having bipolar disorder. In my pre-diagnosis life, I often overlooked ignorant and irascible comments made about mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. I also had great disdain for negative comments about people who have those disorders. I never realized how detrimental calling individuals with severe mental illnesses “literally psycho,” “crazy,” and “insane” actually is. I never really noticed how persistent negative stereotypes about bipolar people are in the media until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder myself. On top of this, there are also ill-informed people in the psychological journalism field who suggest that bipolar individuals are violent and aggressive, despite several studies finding that they are not more inclined to violence than the general population is. These stereotypes and misconceptions then go onto create hurdles for bipolar people to secure a job and causes them to face discrimination. With the growing movements of ADHD/ADD and Autism awareness, it is also important to bring such awareness to conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder.

Bipolar disorder affects approximately 1% of Americans

Bipolar disorder can be defined as the following:

Bipolar disorder is influenced by multiple factors, including genetics and the environment.

There are many misconceptions about bipolar disorder among the general public. The misconceptions create stigmas against those suffering from bipolar disorder

Although very few studies have been published on the general public’s opinion towards bipolar disorder specifically, there is a preponderance of studies that have been published on related disorders such as schizophrenia. Additionally, many people with bipolar disorder have gone to the internet to share their experiences with the general public. Many report being discriminated against at their universities, jobs, medical facilities, and in public. A person with bipolar disorder wrote on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that:

Others, such as Gabe Howard from WebMD report that

Not only does stigma prevent those with bipolar disorder from obtaining jobs, relationships, and accommodations, it also inhibits access to treatment for the disorder as well. Because bipolar disorder is exceedingly stigmatized, many people who experience symptoms of the disorder trepidly hide their symptoms to avoid discrimination and stigmatization. This causes their symptoms to exacerbate, their performance in school and work to crash, their social relationships to fail, and their chance of committing suicide to rocket. A writer from NAMI expresses that

Now that it has been established that individuals living with bipolar disorder face an immense amount of discrimination and stigmatization, it is essential to investigate why these fallacies and stigmas exist, and whether they are grounded in factual evidence or not.

Despite psychologists vastly agreeing that misconceptions of bipolar disorder are often grounded in stereotypes, many journalists continue to contribute to the stigmatization by suggesting that those with bipolar disorder are aggressive and violent. However, many studies have falsified the notion that bipolar people are inherently more violent than everyone else.

The American media and popular amateur psychology blogs on the internet have contributed to problematic stereotypes against those living with bipolar disorder. The media often portrays bipolar as a death sentence or prison sentence and displays bipolar characters as being incapable of sustaining jobs, education, and relationships. The reality is actually that an overwhelming amount of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder have college degrees (even PhD’s), six-figure salaries, stable families with children, and healthy relationships with their spouse. Although it is true that people diagnosed with bipolar disorder often have a strenuous time with relationships, jobs, and school, this is mostly only the case during the initial phase of the diagnosis; it often phases out as the patient progresses with treatment and medication.

Despite psychologists coming to a consensus that mentally ill people are not violent, some amateur psychology blogs such as still portray them as such.

The blog goes onto suggest that loved ones of people with bipolar disorder should “separate themselves” to prevent injury. However, on the contrary, there is a prevalence of studies conducted by actual psychologists and scholars that suggest the exact opposite. A study that examined the rate of violent crime in 8,000 people diagnosed with schizophrenia (a disorder that is related to bipolar disorder) over the period of 1973 to 2006 found that when controlling for substance abuse, mentally ill people are no more likely to commit crimes and acts of violence than the general population is. Additionally, isolating people with bipolar disorder is worse for them, not better — as it further mortifies them. Those with bipolar disorder who receive more social support are more likely to succeed in life and are less likely to commit suicide. Studies have revealed that medication, routine, and social support are all vital for a person with bipolar disorder to succeed.

Further, a study by Declan O’Hern from Elon University reveals

Mass shootings in the United States are on the rise. However, mental illness is not the problem, a lack of strict gun laws is the problem.

Moreover, with the exponentially increasing rate of mass shootings, many people have been unequivocally blaming mental illness as the cause of the shooting, rather than admitting there is actually a gun problem in the United States. If mental illness was truly the cause of mass shootings, there would be a ubiquity of mass shootings perpetrated by the mentally ill in other Western countries, yet there are not. However, despite the fact guns are clearly the larger problem, mentally ill people are continuously blamed. Statistics even show that those with bipolar disorder and mental illnesses are more likely to be harmed by other people than they are to cause harm to others. The National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) shows that

Additionally, other mental health organizations state

Furthermore, the ignominy and misrepresentation of bipolar disorder is very harmful towards individuals with bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder need support from their family and friends in order to survive. It is absolutely stringent for those with bipolar disorder to seek therapy and take their meds. However, the greater the opprobrium towards mentally ill people, the more difficult it becomes for mentally ill people to receive treatment for their disorder. In turn, this makes it more likely for those suffering from mental illness to suffer from their symptoms and to commit suicide. The average reduction in life expectancy for those with bipolar disorder is 20 years. This is not because bipolar disorder itself is a death sentence, this is not because people with bipolar disorder refuse to treat themselves; this is because people with bipolar disorder are stigmatized, treated horribly by others, and often do not receive proper treatment. Until this stigma is removed and people with bipolar disorder are surrounded with social and psychological support, that reduction in life expectancy will stay the same — and may possibly become even worse.

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Abraham Fetin

Abraham Fetin

A Cultural and Biological Anthropology student based in the Washington, D.C. area