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:

According to the National Institute of Public Health, bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Bipolar I affects approximately 1.5% of the population and is defined by a history of mania and depression (Mansell, Powell, Pedley, Thomas, & Jones, 2010). Symptoms associated with the disorder include manic, high, jumpy, impulsive, and unusually energetic episodes that last seven days, offset by episodes of intense depression.

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:

It is much harder telling people I have bipolar disorder than it was telling them I had anxiety and depression. It was difficult enough explaining that no, I can’t just “get over” my sadness, that no, I can’t just “relax” about the things I agonize over, that no, I’m not just lazy, or too high strung, etc. without having to explain that my disorder isn’t going to make me hurt anyone. Our society is just now beginning to understand the struggles that all of us with mental illness face, and is still inexcusably harsh on people for symptoms of which they have no control over. But certain illnesses invoke more fear and derision than others, namely those that are most associated with violence in our culture and media: bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. Because of this, it’s more difficult for me to seek help from others and secure the accommodations that I need than it was before.

Others, such as Gabe Howard from WebMD report that

As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I have faced a lot of stigma and discrimination, from extreme examples, such as being fired from my job, to small things, like a doctor assuming that I’m on disability (when I’ve never been on disability).

People tend to make blanket assumptions about my life based on a lot of false stereotypes surrounding bipolar disorder and those of us who live with it. People believe we are unable to work, can’t be in stable relationships, and must live off our parents, among other things.

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

I either have to downplay what’s going on and risk people simply not believing me and thinking that I’m merely making excuses, or I can admit the extent of what’s going on and risk worrying or scaring them. I get unsolicited advice from classmates and other near-strangers about how I’m not ambitious enough or working hard enough in complete ignorance of how psychological disorders work, and I don’t know how to correct them without outing myself and therefore opening myself up to even more inappropriate commentary. I’m afraid of telling employers or potential employers that I might need special allowances because, even though those of us in the U.S. are technically protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they may find some other way to get around dealing with me that doesn’t appear outwardly discriminatory.

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 Healthy Place for Your Mental Health still portray them as such.

There are many people in jail because of their anger and bipolar behavior. Children who threaten their parents, women who punch a co-worker, or men who pick fights with strangers are common among people who have this illness. We don’t discuss it much, because so many people are embarrassed by what they have done. All my life, I’ve lived with the embarrassment of mood swings. Indeed, bipolar affects my moods in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track of what is real and what is caused by faulty wiring in my brain.

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

The most common stereotype associated with mental disorders in general, bipolar disorder included, is that sufferers are dangerous and violent. According to psychologists who’ve studied the depiction of mental health on both the large and small screen, the vast majority of patients are neither violent nor dangerous (Vann, 2016), and when it does occur, violence is seldom directed toward strangers (Wahl, 1995). Were this concept widely understood, it’s likely media depictions of the mentally ill would be far different.

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

Most people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence.

Additionally, other mental health organizations state

People with a mental illness are more likely to harm themselves — or to be harmed — than they are to hurt other people. A person with schizophrenia is far more likely to die by suicide than they are to harm someone else

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.

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