What People Get Wrong About Bipolar Disorder

By Melissa Bykofsky July 7, 2015

TV programs like Showtime’s Shameless and Homeland and movies like Infinitely Polar Bear have given bipolar disorder some significant screen time over the last few years. But how much about the entertainment industry’s portrayal of the mental condition — which affects approximately 5.7 million adults in the U.S. — is actually accurate?

“Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder characterized by periods of elevated mood, energy, and activity called manic episodes, and periods of depressive episodes,” Amelia Davis, MD, the medical director at Rosewood Ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona, explains to Yahoo Health. “The symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe and different from normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time.” 

Some of Hollywood’s portrayals of the disorder do stand true — alcohol, caffeine, and recreational drugs can potentially trigger symptoms; sufferers often try to hide their illness at work; and there can be a strain on families trying to help loved ones who refuse treatment. But there are some aspects of the condition that are nothing more than myths.

Myth: People with bipolar disorder experience several mood swings in the course of a few hours.

Sometimes, people experience mood swings that last a couple of hours and ask if they have bipolar disorder, Davis says. “The mood and symptoms associated with bipolar disorder typically last several days and are more severe [than the average mood swing] and interfere with some aspects of the individual’s ability to function,” she says. Bipolar disorder also does not cause moods to switch back and forth rapidly, going from manic to depressive within a few hours. Instead, individuals with bipolar disorder typically have two to four mood cycles a year, according to Davis.

Myth: When people are in the manic phase, they are often happy.

Manic episodes can actually make people angry, irritable, and aggressive, Davis says. “People experiencing a manic episode often sleep very little, have increased energy, are talking very rapidly, and may appear hyperactive or involved in a lot of different activities, she explains. “Some people can even become psychotic and have delusions or start hear voices that are not there.”

Related: Bipolar Disorder: What You Need to Know

Myth: Bipolar disorder is easy to diagnose.

Prolonged periods of misdiagnosis are actually common, Natasha Tracy, the award-winning writer behind the blogBipolar Burble, tells Yahoo Health. “I sought treatment at the age of 20 and, at that time, I knew that I had bipolar disorder from the extensive research I had done,” Tracy says. “It took a change in doctors and about a year to be properly diagnosed — though a diagnosis is really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of gaining any real sense of wellness.” 

Myth: You can take a quick test to diagnose bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder tends to run in the family, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If you have a close relative with the disorder, you may have a 10 percent chance of experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder, but there is no sure-fire way to test for the mental illness. “There is a test performed on saliva samples that looks for genetic mutations associated with the disorder, “ Reef Karim, DO, a human behavior expert, psychiatrist, and addiction medicine physician in Beverly Hills, California, tells Yahoo Health. “But scientifically, we aren’t at the place yet where we can determine from a test if someone is bipolar.”

Myth: It’s impossible for people with bipolar disorder to lead normal, healthy lives.

People with the condition can maintain healthy careers and relationships through treatment, such as medication and therapy. In addition to these options, “individuals with bipolar disorder can help control their symptoms by getting enough sleep, having a regular sleeping schedule, exercising regularly, eating right, keeping stress low, and having supportive people in his or her life,” Davis says. 

Related: What Demi Lovato Wishes People Understood About Bipolar Disorder

Myth: Bipolar sufferers are always unstable.

During a manic episode, individuals with bipolar disorder may engage in reckless behavior and poor judgment, Davis says. “An individual may feel like they are on top of the world and act invincible, and in a depressive episode, individuals may feel extremely hopeless and have thoughts of ending his or her own life,” she explains. But Tracy says that through her own illness, she also experiences periods of less symptomatic behavior she calls euthymia: a normal, non-depressed, positive (or neutral) mood. 

Myth: All people with bipolar disorder are geniuses.

The short-lived ABC show Mind Games featured a character whose bipolar disorder made him brilliant in human psychology. But not everyone with bipolar disorder is highly intelligent. People with higher-than-average intelligence and lower-than-average intelligence are both likely to be hospitalized with bipolar disorder, according to a study published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry. Tracy credits this myth to people’s desire to find a higher meaning in mental illnesses. “People who suffer, and those who see that suffering, want to believe that in the end, something good will come of it,” Tracy writes in an essay for The Huffington Post. “But I can tell you, from the bottom of my heart: there is no upside to my bipolar disorder. I am sick. I hate being sick. I would give anything to give this particular ‘gift’ away.”