What not to say to someone with bipolar disorder

Want to know what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder? Here are five useful tips from a person who has bipolar disorder.

Young person holds a white mask to their face so that it covers less than half. They have piercing eyes that look straight at the camera. For article on what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder.

One of the worst things you can say to someone with bipolar disorder is, “You don't look bipolar.”

What not to say to someone with bipolar disorder

Want to know what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder? Here are five useful tips from a person who has bipolar disorder.

As someone with bipolar disorder, I know firsthand that it is misunderstood. Even though approximately 1 in 100 people have bipolar, there is still a lot of stigma attached to it. Here is my take on what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder.

Five examples of what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder

1. “You’re bipolar?”

Erm, well technically no, My name is Katie and I HAVE bipolar.

I find this quite frustrating as bipolar does not define my being. It is a part of who I am sure, but It is not all I am. You wouldn’t say “Hi, I am diabetes” or “Oh hey! This is my friend Susan and she is asthma.”

For some reason, though, I find bipolar to be spoken about in this way more than any illness. I think it’s important to keep the illness separate from our whole selves. Same as when I suffered from anorexia, I had anorexia, but I most certainly wasn’t anorexia.

2. “Everyone has mood swings, I’m a bit like that.”

You’re right everyone does have fluctuations in mood naturally, but what defines bipolar is that they go beyond that. Happiness becomes Mania, and feeling sad becomes depression. These are extremes of mood that hugely disrupt someone’s life and ability to function as they usually would, these episodes can last for weeks or even months and need intervention. They are not the same as normal mood fluctuations.

3. “Bipolar mania is where you’re really happy isn’t it?”

Technically on some level, you may be correct. There are different forms of mania.

Hypomania and Mania.

Hypomania is when someone will often feel full of energy, happy, excited, productive, have lots of ideas, and is confident. It generally lasts a shorter amount of time than mania, and it does not include any psychotic symptoms. A lot of people like these times due to the feeling. It’s like a buzz. It does feel great at times, I’m not going to lie. I myself can get a lot done, come up with some of my best ideas, and just feel great.

BUT there is also the other side that can creep in too. The agitation, irritability, and lack of concentration are because of racing thoughts, so it’s often not quite as simple as people think. There is a dark side to mania.

Mania is a step up from hypomania. It often starts with the feeling of happiness, euphoria, and well-being, but it quickly progresses into too much more. You feel untouchable like you can do anything; you can’t catch a thought as they are going that fast, and so speech may seem chaotic. People sleep less, sometimes not at all, which only drives it further. People can get themselves into trouble through lack of inhibition, spending money they don’t have, drinking more, doing drugs. Bipolar mania is often accompanied by hypersexuality, an increased sex drive that involves risky, reckless behavior. It can cause a huge amount of frustration and irritability.

We will start multiple tasks and not complete any until, quite frankly, it all comes together in one big cluster fuck, and we lose control. It can often lead to a loss of reality, where someone experiences hallucinations and delusions.

For me, these have included believing people are watching my house, seeing shadows, hearing my name called, believing there is evil in my house, and carrying out rituals to counteract it.

So yes, while it may start as feeling happy, it is a very teeny tiny part of what mania actually is.

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4. “You take lithium? Isn’t that for proper mad people?” 

Yes, I take lithium. But not everyone with bipolar takes lithium. There are various medications and what will work for one won’t work for the other as with anything else. Lithium is the oldest psychiatric drug. Therefore it really must have proved it’s worth, right?

I’ve had nurses and even a GP say to me,” surely there’s a more MODERN medication you can be given?” There may very well be but that hasn’t worked as well for me. Lithium still has a reputation as the “Lunatic asylums,” "psych wards," and “Lithium zombies.”

I am less of a “zombie” on lithium than on other medications I have tried. Everyone is different in how they react, and this is a stigma that really gets my goat.

How long has paracetamol been around? Is there anything more MODERN? Precisely.

"If you struggle to remember what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder, start with being nice!"

5. “Some of the best people have bipolar! They’re all famous” 

This is often said like it’s something that we should be very pleased with ourselves about. Stephen Fry is a very common point of reference. As is Claire Danes.

While I genuinely would like to say that having bipolar disorder has made me a genius, I can’t. Sad but true, having bipolar does not give you a free pass to a genius mind, a creative mastermind or anything else.

There does seem to be a link between bipolar and creativity. I myself am very creative and have an Etsy shop off the back of it, but is this due to having bipolar, or would I indeed be creative anyway? I guess that’s the chicken and the egg question, but I think it’s fair to say that not everyone with bipolar will be creative, and it does not automatically make someone an intellectual genius as much as I wish that were true.

Also just because some famous people have it doesn’t mean that it’s a great thing to have and plus these celebs will have experienced all the horrible, destructive symptoms the same as the rest of us.

I hear Channing Tatum had the flu not long ago, for example…Now as much as I think that guy is hot, it doesn’t make me want the flu…see where I’m going?

These are just a few of the things you should not say to someone with bipolar disorder: the main ones that I hear getting banded around quite freely. Like all mental illnesses, there seems to be a lot, and I could be here forever, but the main thing is to remember that bipolar disorder is a mental illness. It’s not just being “too happy,” it’s not just “being moody,” it’s not just something that famous people have, and it definitely doesn’t define us.

I am me. Katie. I need support sometimes, I struggle with things, but I am not Bipolar. I have bipolar. The difference is a huge one.

Article by
Katie Houghton

Katie Houghton, the author of "What not to say to someone with bipolar disorder" ss passionate about raising awareness and reducing mental health stigma, and maybe passing on a little hope along the way. Katie's mental health blog, A Journey to Hope, tackles mental illness stigma, raises awareness, and sends happy posts to those who need to feel less alone. Kate's book on her journey through mental illness, In Bloom Not Broken, was published in May 2019.