When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they follow a treatment plan set out by medical professionals and usually inform friends and family, who rally around with help and sympathy. When someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, treatment may be shrouded in secrecy, and only a select few friends or family members will be told. All while, the affected person worries about the sort of reaction it will get.
Despite all our advanced knowledge, there is still a stigma that exists around mental illness, with friends, family and employers often being misinformed and unsure how to react. That’s why it’s important to understand the disease of bipolar disorder and what a diagnosis really means.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by up-and-down episodes of mania and depression, or extreme highs and lows. Hypomania, a high-energy state in which a person feels exuberant but hasn’t lost his or her grip on reality, may feel good, but it doesn’t last; and coming down off that high can be dangerous. An inability to complete tasks can be another warning sign. While we all have the occasional project that we never get around to finishing, a house full of half-completed projects is a hallmark of bipolar disorder. Beware of those who plan grand, unrealistic projects that are never finished before moving on to something else.
Depression is another common sign, but it’s important to understand that typical antidepressants don’t work well in patients who are bipolar. They can even make people cycle more frequently, worsening their condition. Experiencing symptoms of mania and depression at the same time – called “mixed mania” – can make someone with this condition extremely irritable, and rapid or “pressured” speech is one of the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder. Look for someone who will talk rapidly and speak over you, jumping around to different topics. Those with bipolar disorder often have difficulty at work, too, as their symptoms interfere with their ability to show up or interact productively with others. Be on the lookout for interpersonal problems in the workplace as a sign of bipolar disorder. Sleep problems and erratic, grandiose behavior during manic phases are also signs. There is also a genetic component to bipolar disorder, meaning it can be hereditary.
While there is currently no cure for bipolar disorder, proper treatment helps individuals gain better control of their mood swings and related symptoms. Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong and recurrent illness, people with the disorder need long-term treatment to maintain control of bipolar symptoms. An effective maintenance treatment plan includes medication and psychotherapy for preventing relapse and reducing symptom severity, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.
This can be compounded when someone is in the public eye. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. recently announced that he was seeking treatment for bipolar disorder. During his treatment process, longtime friend and former congressman Patrick Kennedy, who himself received treatment for depression and addiction, visited him—a visit that was reported on by the national news media.
The good news is that Jackson speaking publically about his battle can be an inspiration to others and help combat the stigma that continues to surround mental illness. By letting his constituents know he has a disease and is getting treatment, Jackson can help educate the public by showing them it’s no different than if he had been diagnosed with cancer or some other solely physical ailment.
By Wendy Lee Nentwig