Busting the Bipolar Myths!

30th March is World Bipolar Day

The term bipolar has crept into our casual vernacular and is often used to describe the ordinary “ups and downs” of life. Even Katy Perry talks about having a case of love bipolar in her hit song Hot n Cold (this is not a real thing by the way).

However, there may be a danger inherent in the casualisation of the term “bipolar”. It underestimates the seriousness of the disorder and downplays the struggles that someone who suffers bipolar disorder experiences.

The 30th of March is World Bipolar Day and is also the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder. To mark this date, we are busting myths about bipolar disorder.

Myth 1: Bipolar sufferers are just “moody”

Bipolar involves mood shifts which are much more severe than the usual “ups and downs” everyone experiences. Depressive episodes involve low mood, feelings of hopelessness, extreme sadness and lack of interest and pleasure in things. Someone suffering from a depressive episode may be so unwell that they struggle to keep a job, or maintain relationships. Manic (or hypomanic) episodes involve extremely high mood and activity, racing thoughts, little need for sleep and rapid speech. Mania can involve a sense of being better or more important than others and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that are likely to result in painful consequences (for example: using drugs, engaging in risky behaviours such as gambling or overspending).

Myth 2: Bipolar disorder is harmless

Alarmingly, around 1 in 4 people living with bipolar disorder attempt suicide. In-fact, bipolar accounts for 12% of all suicides each year.

Myth 3: Bipolar disorder is rare

It’s estimated that bipolar affects approximately one in 50 Australians per year. That’s approximately 360,000 people. To put this in perspective, all forms of cancer affect around 98,000 Australians per year (around one in 250 people).

Myth 4: There is only one type of bipolar disorder

The DSM 5 (diagnostic manual for psychologists) list two types of bipolar disorder: I and II.

Bipolar I disorder involves the experience of depressive episodes and extreme ‘highs’ (a manic episode), often with psychotic features. The severity and duration of these episodes are usually severe and may result in hospitalisation.

Bipolar II disorder involves the experience of depressive episodes with less severe ‘highs’ (called hypomanic episodes) without psychotic features.

There is also two other types of bipolar disorder in consideration in the literature and they are when hypomanic episodes follow taking antidepressants (bipolar III) and rapid cycling between moods (bipolar IV) but these are not listed in the DSM 5 yet.

Myth 5: It’s an easy fix

Amongst people with bipolar disorder, there is typically a 10-20 year interval from first mood episode to diagnosis. During this period of undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder, considerable damage can occur to the individual’s life, such as marriage break-up. After diagnosis, bipolar disorder requires long-term management, which may include medication and psychological therapies.


One of the ways we can show respect to those suffering from this debilitating disorder is to think twice before using the word “bipolar” to describe something it is not. When we are well-informed, we realise that using the term “bipolar” to describe someone who is being flippant, or experiencing mild mood shifts grossly underestimates the severity of the disorder for those who are dealing with a major, and sometimes life threatening disease.