Understanding Bipolar Disorder

I missed Bipolar Disorder Awareness month in February. But it's never too late to talk about a disease that affects 5.7 million adults in the U.S., or 2.6 percent of the adult population (although new studies suggest that the disorder is underdiagnosed).

My family members who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also referred to as manic depression, never wanted me to write about it. Who would? It's bad enough struggling with the symptoms of a brain disorder, let alone the stigma of a mental illness label like bipolar disorder brings to one's life. I write about it anyway, but try not to get too personal because it is a very sensitive issue.

Bipolar Disorder: Searching For Genetic Links

The unfortunate result of the shame associated with a bipolar disorder diagnosis is that the patient does not go to the doctor for a diagnosis, does not accept the diagnosis if he or she does go, does not tell anyone the diagnosis, and might prefer to treat the disorder with illegal drugs rather than with prescribed medications in order to avoid the stigma. Being thought of as a drug addict is somehow more palatable than being labeled with a mental illness. Bipolar disorder is perceived as scary and dangerous, even though it is a no-fault brain disorder that can be treated.

How dangerous is bipolar disorder? Very, to the person who has it, if they don't get the proper treatment at the earliest possible onset. At least 50 percent of those with the disorder have tried suicide, with a "success" rate of 20 percent.

What can we do to lower those statistics? Speak about it. Spill the beans. Tell the story.

Bipolar Disorder Rates Highest in US

Andy Kutler's article at huffingtonpost.com about his brother's death (March 19, The Charlie Sheens We Know) does just that. It hit close to home because I've known the Kutlers since 1981 when I began working with Andy's father, Stanley Kutler. Even though Stanley knew I had family members diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he never mentioned that his own son struggled with the same challenges. That's because the family of Jeff Kutler never knew the extent of Jeff's struggles. "My brother reached his 49th year without virtually anyone close to him knowing about the deep mental-health issues that had plagued him for years," Andy writes.

How could Jeff keep his condition such a secret? Since one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder is an elevated sense of importance during the manic phase - a grandiosity that makes one feel as if everyone else is stupid -the illness distorts perception so much that having it makes one believe that it would be impossible to have it. During the depression phase the goal is to self-medicate the low and try to recapture the high. It can take 10 years to properly diagnose bipolar disorder as it often masquerades as depression, which leads to improper medication, or to drug abuse, which obfuscates some of the more obvious symptoms.

Jeff's personal story as told by his brother is eerily similar to Charlie Sheen's public behavior. "He had delusions of grandeur, frequently telling us and his employers how undervalued and underappreciated he was . . . .He spent money recklessly . . . . [M]y brother informed us by email -- word for word -- that 'I'm on a drug, and it's called Jeff Kutler.'"

The Demise of Charlie Sheen

Andy Kutler has the "advantage" of his brother's death, which gives him the freedom to speak out without hurting or stigmatizing him. What about the rest of us? I don't want to wait til one of my family members is dead to say that our family has struggled with this chronic disease, which is treatable, when to do so might help other families to understand the disorder and inspire people to accept bipolar disorder as simply another disease that must be treated. But do I dare? Do they? Do you?

In a world where Kay Redfield Jamison can write a memoir of her bipolar disorder and be a best-selling author as well as an honored professor of psychiatry and Ben Stiller can be a top-grossing box office movie actor as well as a comedian, writer, film director and producer, why do people with bipolar disorder still feel as though they might be risking their lives or at least livelihoods if they admit to the disease and seek help when the opposite is just as true? They may be saving their lives and opening themselves to a range of possibilities for success.

Judy Kirkwood suggests checking out bphope.com for a warm and caring community of those in the know about bipolar disorder.


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