March 30th, World Bipolar Day
“One percent (1%) of Canadians aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a bipolar disorder in the previous 12 months” (Government of Canada, 2009).
Everyone experiences changes in mood. What makes bipolar disorder different? Bipolar disorder is a mental health diagnosis that sees individuals cycle between two extremes- a high state referred to as mania and a low state referred to as depression. The disorder impacts mood and energy levels and one’s ability to function.
Bipolar I Disorder, Bipolar II Disorder, Cyclothymic Disorder
Bipolar disorder can be classified into three types. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2020), the classifications can be defined as follows:
- Bipolar I Disorder is defined by manic episodes that last at least seven days. Usually, depressive episodes occur and typically last at least two weeks.
- Bipolar II Disorder is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not manic episodes typical of Bipolar I Disorder.
- Cyclothymic disorder is defined by periods of hypomanic symptoms and depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years in adults and one year in children and adolescents. Symptoms experienced do not meet the diagnostic requirements for a hypomanic episode or depressive episode.
Living with Bipolar Disorder
CMHA, Alberta Division spoke to a 30-year-old Albertan who lives with bipolar disorder for deeper insights into living with the diagnosis. He walks us through many misconceptions surrounding the diagnosis, his day-to-day challenges and the non-linear process of managing one’s mental health. To protect the identity of the individual, the pseudonym Cam is used. It should be remembered that mental health presents in various ways for different individuals, and Cam’s story represents one unique journey with a bipolar diagnosis.
Unfortunately, many mental health diagnoses continue to be misunderstood, and bipolar disorder is no different. Cam speaks at length about misconceptions about the presentation of emotions, “one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder is that mood swings take place within a short period of time and within a single day. The reality is the mood swings last for longer periods of time.”
Cam reminds us that everyone experiences emotions, and it can feel invalidating when emotions are not treated the same way when someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, “it seems that people think any expression of emotion is due to the disorder. It is important to remember that neurotypical people also experience emotions, even intense ones at times.”
“The disorder has me in a headlock”
Describing the disorder as having him in a headlock at times, Cam shines a light on what a depressive episode can feel like, “I find that when I am in a depressive episode, especially while I can function, it takes an inordinate amount of energy to do things. I tend to have to decide what things I can really do and then push other tasks to the side until I feel better. It’s also challenging that long periods of an episode can fluctuate each day. It can add stress knowing things have built up, making the episode worse.”
Mental Health = Non-linear Process
The process of mental health is anything but a linear one. Cam explains, “taking medication or going to therapy isn’t a one and done scenario, nor is it a “cure.” You will still have episodes from time to time. Those treatments just help temper their frequency and severity.” The journey with any diagnosis consists of learning and adapting to your needs at a given moment.
How Can Others be Supportive
Cam acknowledges the challenges family and friends face when they are not sure how to support loved ones with any form of mental health diagnosis, “I think one thing that is difficult for people trying to support loved ones with mental health challenges is riding the fine line between treating them normally but also being understanding of their difficulties.”
To strike a balance, Cam suggests, “if they are having difficulties with work or they are not taking care of themselves, then be mindful of that and don’t punish them. But no matter what, do not treat them like they are broken.”
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, please call 211 (in Alberta) or your local distress line.