Kanye West’s recent public struggles with bipolar disorder has brought new attention to this mental illness, which affects millions of Americans.
As the rapper and his wife Kim Kardashian West opened up about his condition, others “mocked” West for his shifts in mood. However, some, like singer Halsey, stood up for him.
In some cases, these kinds of conversations by celebrities can create opportunities for people to learn more about bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.
“When public figures like celebrities speak up about their mental health issues, it helps to decrease stigma around mental illness. It also normalizes receiving mental health services, such as therapy and medication support,” said Frances Chinchilla, LCSW, a clinical supervisor and behavioral health therapist at AltaMed Health Services, a federally qualified healthcare center serving Los Angeles and Orange counties, California.
Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a New York City-based learning specialist, says celebrities talking openly about their mental illness is a “mixed bag.”
“I applaud celebrities and their families for sharing insights into their experiences,” said Mannis, “because it’s very brave of them. It also personalizes the condition.”
At the same time, she adds, everyone’s experience with bipolar disorder is unique, so seeing how a celebrity is dealing with it may not always be helpful.
“When people see very strong messages or behavior, it may lead them to think that that is a necessary outcome for them,” she said, “rather than being aware that there are ways to get help that can really improve their quality of life and their relationships.”
Misconceptions about bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder involves fluctuations in mood, energy, and activity levels. This includes manic episodes, where a person feels energized or irritable, and depressive episodes characterized by feeling sad, hopeless, or indifferent.
While many people are familiar with the term bipolar disorder, there is still much confusion about what this condition really is.
“A lot of people think that people with bipolar disorder quickly and often shift between mania and depressive episodes,” said Chinchilla. “The reality is that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder requires defined periods of depression and mania that last a certain amount of time.”
There’s a lot of variability across people, but bipolar disorder is classified into three types:
- Bipolar 1 disorder: This is the most severe version, with manic episodes lasting at least 7 days or severe enough that a person needs to be hospitalized. People also have depressive episodes, which usually last at least 2 weeks. Some people may have manic and depressive symptoms at the same time.
- Bipolar 2 disorder: Depressive episodes and manic episodes occur, but the periods of feeling “up” are less extreme than with bipolar 1 disorder. These are known as hypomanic episodes.
- Cyclothymic disorder: Periods of hypomanic symptoms and depressive symptoms occur, but they are less severe as with either of the other two types. A diagnosis of cyclothymic disorder requires symptoms to occur for at least 2 years (or 1 year in children and adolescents).
Like some other mental illness terms, “bipolar disorder” is commonly used in everyday speech, although not always accurately.
“Some people believe that having mood swings is the same as being bipolar,” said Chinchilla, “but many people experience mood swings, especially during times of stress.”
People with bipolar disorder, though, experience more extreme fluctuations in their mood, energy, or activity levels. These are severe enough to affect their daily life or to require hospitalization. People may also be at risk of self- harm or suicide.
“It’s a very difficult disorder for individuals and for their loved ones,” said Mannis, “because of the mood swings, the impulsivity, the medication issues, and also the fact that it’s so chronic.”
Bipolar disorder also often occurs alongside other mental illnesses, including anxiety, substance use disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“That is part of what makes it such a painful experience for many people,” said Mannis, “and why it’s important to have a team of healthcare professionals who are able to help an individual and their loved ones.”
Seek help from a mental health professional
But there is hope.
“While it is a chronic disorder that presents challenges,” she added, “at the same time, we know how to help people with bipolar disorder, and there are ways to support them and their families.”
Treatments for bipolar disorder include medications and psychotherapy. Some people also find that regular exercise and tracking their mood changes can help keep them balanced.
Getting help starts by talking to someone trained to diagnose and treat bipolar disorder.
“If you believe that you might have bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition,” said Chinchilla, “it is imperative that you seek support from a mental health professional.”
Several websites provide resources for people with bipolar disorder and their families, including:
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