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What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is not a rare condition. Around one out of every hundred people will be diagnosed with it at some point, and about three percent of Americans will deal with the disorder in their lives. Despite how common it is, public knowledge about the disorder is fairly limited. Like most mental illnesses, there’s a significant stigma surrounding bipolar disorder. People are never taught about it in school, and much of their understanding of this condition comes from dated and offensive stereotypes, often portrayed in movies and TV shows. 

Because of this lack of education, people don’t know how to react when they inevitably find out that their friend, family member, or co-worker has bipolar disorder. For example, I have bipolar disorder. A good, simple explanation of the disorder from someone who’s dealt with it firsthand could be helpful in ensuring that loved ones with the disorder get the support they need.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder. While emotions are those short, intense, and specific feelings we experience when something good or bad happens, moods are much more broad and ambient. When we say we are generally feeling up or down, we’re referencing our mood. A more commonly understood mood disorder is major depression. When someone is depressed, they experience long periods of an abnormally low mood. They may feel extreme prolonged sadness, sleep more, be socially withdrawn, and have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness.

Bipolar is actually a type of depression. People with bipolar disorder experience long periods of abnormally high mood followed by long depressive episodes. These periods of high mood, called mania, distinguish bipolar from major depression.

Mania is, in a certain sense, like the opposite of depression. While a depressed person has an overall lower level of activity, a manic person has an extraordinary high level of activity. A person in mania might start and stop many tasks simultaneously, make extensive and grandiose plans for the future, forget to eat, talk so much that it seems they may never stop, and have an overwhelming sense of euphoria. The most telltale sign of mania is a loss of the need to sleep, as the brain is on a complete and unstoppable overdrive.

This isn’t just a simple mood swing. Everyone gets mood swings sometimes. Mood swings are natural, sudden changes in emotion that are usually brought on by stress. Though they can be extreme at times, mood swings can resolve without an incredible amount of difficulty, medication, or hospital visits.

Bipolar is far different. People with this condition aren’t the caricatured, self-contradicting, angry-one-minute-and-happy-the-next characters from TV. They’re usually just confused and scared. 

Bipolar is a terrifying disorder. The highs of mania take the brain to a scary, fast-paced environment where rapid thoughts, emotions, ideas, and sounds strictly forbid rest in any form. Once that roller coaster reaches its peak, however, the lows of depression await. It’s a never-ending ride.

It’s impossible to describe everything about bipolar disorder in just one article. Everyone’s experience with it is different, and there’s just so many possible symptoms to talk about. Nonetheless, at least having some basic knowledge about the tango between mania and depression can go a long way. Although we can never fully understand exactly what’s going on in each other’s minds, we can certainly be kind, caring, and patient towards those around us. You never know what someone is really dealing with.

~ Pat Mallory `26

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