Understanding bipolar disorder often isn't easy. Much of what people think they know about bipolar illness turns out not to be true. Media portrayals of people with bipolar have frequently been misleading or downright inaccurate, and though this has improved in recent years, older programs with poor information are still in reruns.
The old name of this condition, "manic depression," doesn't help. It emphasizes the two extremes in negative terms without giving an inkling that there are gradations in between and periods of stability as well. It's far more dramatic than the clinical sounding "bipolar disorder" (although that term, too, has become stigmatizing as the public has become familiar with it).
So you're reading this because you want the plain facts, without distortion, to help you understand a disease that affects about 2.6% of the population world wide (the most recent figures showed that 4.4% of the US population has a bipolar spectrum disorder). Read on - those facts and answers are here.
Basic Bipolar Information:1. What Is Bipolar Disorder?
First off, bipolar is not something that automatically makes you go crazy and attack people. (Yes, some people with bipolar do this - but so do a lot of people with no mental illnesses at all.) Bipolar is not a guarantee that a person will hear voices, climb on the roof and shout at passers-by, or require a straitjacket. It is a physical condition in the brain that affects the mind. In the article What Is Bipolar Disorder? you'll get the solid basic information you need before going on to learn about the illness in more detail.
2. Why Did "Manic Depression" Become "Bipolar Disorder"?
There were a lot of good reasons for this change, which officially occurred in 1980. A look back at the history of the term "manic depression" shows what's wrong with it, and why the change to "bipolar disorder" was an important step. Educate yourself: Why Did "Manic Depression" Become "Bipolar Disorder"?
Terms You Should Know:1. Episode
Distinct periods of abnormal bipolar moods are called "episodes." It's not altogether unreasonable to compare this use of the term to an episode of a TV series. The show is on for half an hour or an hour a week, and off the rest of the time. The single episode in a given week may be upbeat, dramatic or sad, but is always part of the series. Episodes of bipolar may be high or low in nature, too, occurring as part of a series, and there is usually (but not always) "time off" in between them - but they last days, weeks or months. Much more information is given in our FAQ: What Is an Episode?
2. Affective Disorder
Bipolar is sometimes referred to as "bipolar affective disorder." There are a number of mental illnesses that fall into the group called affective disorders. Here's a clear definition of this term, along with a list of these illnesses: Affective Disorder
This is one of the words you'll run into as you read about the "high" side of manic depression. There's a subtle but definite distinction between the way it is used in general and in the framework of bipolar. Learn the difference: Euphoria
As soon as you read this word, I'll bet you think of somebody who is imagining an illness when there's no real physical evidence for it. A good example is the character Lucretia in Georgette Heyer's novel Frederica. Lucretia has convinced herself she has a weak heart after discovering that this pose gets her the kind of attention she wants. In fact, there's nothing at all wrong with her heart. But Lucretia is actually a hypochondriac and her "illness" is not psychosomatic. Get the truth: Psychosomatic
And that leads us to...
"It's All In Your Head"No, it's not. But oh, how often this kind of thing is said to those who have bipolar! In this article, we look at some of the most common hurtful things people say and find the fallacies behind them. Armed with this understanding, you may be able to enlighten someone who carelessly throws one of those things at you. Read and help yourself: It's All In Your Head - And Other Thoughtless Things Said. From that article, you can also share the most painful things others have said to you.
Merikangas KR, Jin R, He J, Kessler RC, Lee S, Sampson NA, Viana MC, Andrade LH, Hu C, Karam EG, Mora MEM, Browne MO, Ono Y, Posada-Villa J, Sagar R, Zarkov Z. "Prevalence and correlates of bipolar spectrum disorder in the World Mental Health Survey Initiative." Archives of General Psychiatry. March 2011. 68(3):241-251.