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Why the Stigma is There in the First Place
The stigma of bipolar disorder needs to be challenged so that people who suffer from this disruptive malady of the mind can treat and cope with their mental illness more effectively. No one volunteers to be bipolar and coping with it is challenging enough, without having to deal with the perceived shame and mistrust that can go along with it. If you're unfamiliar with the symptoms and signs of this serious mental illness, reading Understanding Bipolar Disorder would be a good reference point.
The public at large cannot fathom the disquieting and disrupting feeling in a bipolar individual that their entire mental outlook on life can change drastically at any time, and that they have absolutely no control over those upending mood swings. The impulsive, erratic behavior in a BP individual looks reckless, immature, and irresponsible to people unacquainted with the signs and symptoms of this disorder. At other times, the mania may be seen as arrogant, flighty, or threatening like someone high on speed.
Many think that BP sufferers should just get a hold of themselves and control their behavior; straighten up and fly right so to speak. That is somewhat like asking a cancer victim to stop screwing around with cancer cells and get them out of their system pronto. In both cases, the patients can’t control what’s taking place chemically inside of them, but can only undergo treatment to try and control and cope with their malady.
Cancer is indeed debilitating and deadly, but so is bipolar disorder in different ways. No celebrities join in on massive campaigns to fight, treat, and make known the plight of BP disorder in our society. No races are run to raise money to find a cure. Yet it causes many individuals to take their own lives year after year, and many more find they are just alive to endure a miserable existence. There is a long history, world-wide, of brushing so-called crazy people under the rug, getting them out of sight and out of mind.
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The Wrong Kind of Concern
Anyone looking into the depths of their own mind can become frightened or concerned, but to people with BP, they can’t escape their own thoughts which are filled with darkness, gloom, and no hope for their future. No matter what else they happen to be doing, their minds are busy fighting those thoughts constantly. Someone with BP feels everything more intensely and society appears contrived, fake, and phony. They can’t understand why they can’t just cope with the tragic or artificial world and appear happy like everyone else.
In the depressive cycle, the BP Person has an overwhelming desire to withdraw and isolate. When forced to be around people, they can be uncommunicative and distant. Therefore, people will automatically remember the saying, “it’s the quiet one’s you’ve got to watch out for." In the vast majority of cases, BPs are only a menace to themselves.
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Fighting the Media’s Portrayal of Bipolar Individuals
How many news stories on TV or in print about a deranged murderer end with the statement; he or she had a “long history of mental problems being bipolar"? It’s stated in such a way as to elicit a response like “oh, that explains it." This leads some to believe all bipolar people are expected to commit violent acts of crime and demonstrate all sorts of unsavory behavior. And it’s not even worth getting into how many times we see that in movies or TV dramas, it just feeds the myths. Even the little jabs and slights found in sit-coms can be very hurtful to extremely over-sensitive BPs.
The list of famous, not infamous, people who lived, dealt with, and thrived with bipolar disorder is long and compelling. It includes Abe Lincoln, Jimmy Hendrix, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and we even sent one to the moon (Buzz Aldrin). I would suspect that Shakespeare’s fictional character Hamlet struggled with it himself. Even though their examples can be inspiring to affected people, the problem with referencing the famous BPs is that it doesn’t take into account the countless others who deal with this mental illness and become valuable members of families and communities throughout the world.
Finding caring people who are able to look past the stigma, the difficulties, and the fallacies to see the value of a suffering human being who needs help is important. Ultimately though, a bipolar person must break the chains alone by getting help from mental health professionals and finding the right mood stabilizing medication.
If you are bipolar, you are not your diagnosis. You have more to offer than you can imagine. In fact, it can become one of your greatest assets because once you reach that point where it’s effectively manageable, you can help someone who is suffering by relating all the troubles you went through - by listening, understanding, and making it clear that they are not alone.
The stigma associated with BP is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the many tragic suicides that occur in sufferers who can’t see a way out. So no matter who you are, if you are able to break through that stigma, you may just save a life, literally or figuratively. Make use of the sources listed below for more information on this.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=media_03032008
NIMH. (2009). Bipolar Disorder: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml
National Alliance on Mental Illness http://www.nami.org/
Image Courtesy of the Author: Dan McGoldrick