17 negative stereotypes about bipolar disorder

The most frequently used search terms that usher visitors to my blog are: bipolar disorder stereotypes, bipolar stereotypes, negative stereotypes of bipolar disorder, stereotypes about bipolar disorder, negative stereotypes of bipolar, stereotypes of bipolar disorder – and they occur every. single. day. I googled ‘bipolar stereotypes’ and lo and behold, my most visited post ranked first. Nice. Well, nice, but it’s time to expand on that ole thing. Stereotypes breed stigma, which can have terrible (and in some cases even terminal) consequences. Everything gets an ism, dear reader, and the applicable one here is ableism.

“Ableism refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. People with disabilities are assumed to be less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and take part, and of less value than others. Ableism can be conscious or unconscious and is embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society. Although ableism can affect all people with disabilities, people with psychosocial disabilities experience unique forms of stereotyping.” Ontario Human Rights Commission

Unconscious ableism is a result of upbringing, education and society. It’s tempting to leap out, all guns blazing, whenever it emerges, but that’s almost always the wrong approach. When you (calmly, rationally) tell someone why a stereotype is wrong, you’ll get a negative, neutral or positive response, right? You’re not responsible for their reaction and once you’ve said your thing, you’ve done as much as you can do. Besides, stereotypes are global things.


Bipolar is the latest cool trend.
They call it the cancer of psychiatric disorders, I’m not sure what’s so cool about that? Some asshole celeb ‘coming out’ as bipolar might make it seem cooool to their groupies, but nobody who actually has bipolar is impressed. If you need celebrity endorsement, pay attention to people like Stephen Fry and Carrie Fisher instead. Maybe people think it’s cool because of its tortured genius artist reputation? Hopefully that kind of thought is just an emo adolescent phase.

The medical profession invented bipolar so that they can diagnose more and more people with it and profit from it.
Ah no. More and more people get diagnosed with it, because the population increases and so, logically, do cases of bipolar; it’s incurable and so once you have it, you’re in those statistics for life (and with the genetic nature of the disorder, medical advances and extended lifespans, the stats drop even less); as society grows more sophisticated and life gets more accelerated, pressure on individuals increases and more people are likely to have their latent bipolar activated by the stress and trauma. It takes an average of a decade for adults to be diagnosed, so the perception of bipolar diagnoses falling from the sky like monsoon rains is laughable. As for profit, yes, there’s plenty of that in psychiatry and psychopharmacology, but that’s the way capitalism works.

But you don’t seem bipolar.
And you don’t seem like a psychiatrist.

Bipolar is all about the mood swings.
It used to be filed in a chapter of mood disorders in the DSM, but the latest update (DSM 5) has it in a chapter all of its own, namely ‘Bipolar and Related Disorders’, this is because while moods are major players, that isn’t the whole picture. For instance, one of the main aspect is cognitive. Bipolar is a cluster of varying symptoms, which have varying levels of various effects. See? It’s all very various. Educate yourself by reading this.

People with bipolar disorder have mood swings every five minutes.
People with ultradian cycling bipolar have several shifts in a day, but most bipolar sufferers experience them at a far slower rate. Some people even have years of, or years between episodes.


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But everyone has mood swings.
Indeed, but ours are not simple mood swings, they’re harmful episodes. People without bipolar, as well as people whose bipolar has been stabilised, experience moods that relate to what’s going on in their lives. People with active/untreated bipolar experience them as a result of the disorder regardless of life events, and at a far more serious level than ‘normal’ moods.


Bipolar people are always either manic or depressed.
List all the moods you can think of – we get those too. Where specific bipolar episodes are concerned, there are more options, like mixed states and anxious distress (two of the specifiers listed in the DSM 5), not to mention (shudder) anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure in formerly pleasurable things.

Mania is fun.
Hypomania (mania lite) can be fun to a certain extent and even mania might feel good – for a while. You’re thinking of things like happiness and euphoria though, moods without negative results. Bipolar is a disorder and mania can feel beyond awful at the time, consist of uncomfortable features (agitation and rage, for example) and have terrible consequences. We all have horrible memories of those.

Bipolar people are crazy.
That’s lazy thinking by people who probably haven’t even defined ‘crazy’ for themselves. The most common misconception is that crazy means psychotic, and most people don’t know what that is. Psychosis is not the act of stabbing people to death in showers, for example. Not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences psychosis and those who do, would tell you that it’s often terrifying – something that needs treatment, not mockery.

People with bipolar disorder just need to try harder, think positive, snap out of it…
Growing evidence of the genetic, biochemical and neurobiological components of bipolar would suggest that the most accurate response to that statement is, “don’t be bloody stupid”. Go try harder to think positive and snap out of a migraine or something.

“People… may win a particular battle, but they are incapable of winning the war. Furthermore, why should be have to spend all our time fighting?” I agree that just using self-discipline will not get you very far. You will expend a lot of energy and still end up struggling more than necessary. {source}

Bipolar disorder can be cured. I wish. There’s no cure, there’s no recovery. There’s only the possibility of remission. The guarantees are nil, the palliative care is inadequate, the costs are high and a cure is the holiest of holy grails.

Bipolar people can’t sustain relationships.
Relationships are tricky for everyone and there’s no denying that bipolar brings its own set of challenges to the table. That doesn’t mean lasting relationships are impossible for people with bipolar, you wouldn’t even need to go further than WordPress to find lots of people in long relationships and marriages.

Bipolar people shouldn’t have kids.
Eugenics, much? Bipolar people worry more than you ever could, about the possibility of passing on their disorder – and actually the stats are low. Here’s a really good article about it all.

Bipolar people are irrational, unreliable.
During some episodes, it’s quite likely; many severe illnesses have that effect. Who gets to make that judgment call though? Unless you’re part of the person’s close support network, you can’t do it. The perception though, is that bipolar people are permanently irrational and unreliable and that’s far from the truth. By this stage in this post, you know that bipolar doesn’t mean speeding insane roller coaster.


Bipolar people are violent/dangerous.
As with other badly treated minorities, crime etc stats are higher than they are in the general population, but the statement as it stands is simply another I’ll thought out generalisation. Most people with bipolar disorder are neither violent nor dangerous.

Bipolar is just an excuse for wild/bad behaviour.
It may very well be the reason for it actually, and reading almost any memoir by a person with bipolar will show you how that works. That doesn’t mean it’s a get out of jail free card, trust me on that.

I’m so moody/I did a test online, I think I’m bipolar.
The difference between personality traits and psychiatric disorders, is suffering. If your moods are making your life hell, see your doctor, who will assess you and refer you to a psychiatrist if necessary. This article gives a great overview of the diagnostic process.

This video is so cool, I love it. The rrrripped dude with the lisp waffles charmingly and interjects pissed off grunts and growls into his list of stereotypes. I like him lots.

If we (society) could eliminate the myths, misconceptions, stereotypes and stigma around bipolar disorder, things would improve for everyone concerned. If society stopped assuming we’re imbeciles, marginalising and bullying us, we’d have a far better chance of getting diagnosed faster, treated better and less of us would wind up in the crime and suicide stats. We could spend less time and energy battling it all and more on managing it.

Further reading:
Twitter users use the word ‘bipolar’ wrongly and/or offensively all the damn time, the nasty little fuckwits.
Gender stereotypes and bipolar disorder. Unfortunately it uses the outdated gender binary system.
Stop the Stereotypes: Living Well with Bipolar Disorder. (webcast transcript) “Well Heather that’s a really great question.”
You Probably Don’t Have Bipolar Disorder (Or One Of These 7 Other Conditions)
10 things you should never say to somebody with bipolar disorder.
5 dangers of labels and stereotypes.
45 Truths People With Bipolar Disorder Wish Others Understood
8 Misconceptions about Mental Health and Mental Illness.
Crazy talk: The language of mental illness stigma.

Download Myths and Facts about depression and bipolar (pdf).

For everything else, there’s Google.


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