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Five things people get wrong about bipolar disorder

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Bipolar disorder involves periods of manic highs and depressive lows. No two people are the same and experiences ­– the length and intensity of the highs and the presence of depression – differ from person to person.

Bipolar affects more people than you think. As many as one in 50 people will experience it at some stage in their life. Yet, despite this prevalence it's common for people to make inaccurate assumptions about the disorder.

To help shine a light and reduce the stigma, we asked five SANE Peer Ambassadors to list what people get wrong and what they wished people knew about bipolar disorder.

Treatment is more than medication

They think that it is managed 100 per cent by medication. It's not. I also utilise therapy, hospitalisation, exercise, a good diet and regular sleep to help manage my symptoms.

And what I wish they knew . . .

How important it is for me to have enjoyment in my life. This year I set the goal of finding someone to go to the theatre with me. I've now found that person so it's time to buy tickets and set some dates. I also wish people understood that, for me, depression is the hardest symptom of bipolar to cope with.

– Terese

Bipolar doesn't have a 'look'

I wish people didn't say stuff like, 'You don't look like you have a mental illness!' The reality is it can affect anyone.

Also the misconception that people with a mental illness are violent, explosive, intimidating or threatening. That's just wrong.

And what I wish they knew . . .

I always tell people that when I am unwell, for me it's my reality. I ask people to listen, not judge. Challenging my experience will only make me defensive and unable to comprehend their reasoning.

Also, although my illness impacts me daily, I still lead a full, productive, interesting, exciting and satisfying life.

– Nicci

No, I'm not an artist

The main assumption is that people who have bipolar are creative or smart and that they have split personalities. People also think that you are very moody as a person.

And what I wish they knew . . .

Just how hard it can be to focus and concentrate, or how difficult it can be at times to deal with the negative self-talk, depression, low self-esteem and self-confidence. Remaining and staying positive is a big challenge.

It's also hard to suppress the hypomanic state. Likewise, when I feel depressed it can be very hard to get motivated to do anything.

– Matthew

I'm not unpredictable

People who don't know what bipolar disorder is are often afraid of it and stigma rears up. They think that I can't handle stress, worried that I'll flip out, crack up or be unpredictable in some other way.

And what I wish they knew . . .

It would be nice if people took the time to learn about my illness and how it affects me. For example, I handle stress better than most people. I've learned what my stress triggers are and to respond, not react. Having bipolar disorder doesn't make a person weak - it can actually make them stronger.

– Charlotte

Bipolar doesn't hold me back

There are periods of wellness in between the episodes. In many cases we're still 'functional' and able to participate in activities – albeit with a bit of assistance and or modification.

Sadly, some people assume that we're limited by our diagnosis and we're unable to achieve great things or contribute fully.

And what I wish they knew . . .

Bipolar is episodic and at times debilitating. Episodes vary in degrees on different days and what may have worked during one episode may not necessarily work for another.

Also, there's a difference between a symptom and our personality. Who we are is not the total sum of our symptoms. Living is hard fought and hard won and we take pride in our achievement no matter how big or how small they may seem.

– Maree

For more information about bipolar disorder see The SANE Guide to Bipolar or Whats the difference between bipolar I and II?

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