The conversation surrounding mental illness is still soaked in stigma. Spotlighting these issues is perhaps now more relevant in the mainstream, allowing for understanding to partly replace taboo—but shame, humiliation, and misinformation still dominate the conversation. While misused, ignorant language is spoken quieter now, words like "you're crazy" are still prevalent and cut just as deep. But one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year. And bipolar disorder affects about 2.8% of the U.S. population 18 and older, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Those numbers prove those affected are not outliers, freaks, or "crazy" people. They're one person out five in the room you're sitting in right now. They're your family members, your co-workers, and your friends. They're you.
"Taking medication for a mental disorder is the same as taking Aspirin for a bad back—just because one relates to the mind doesn't make it shameful," notes our editorial project director, Lindsey. "After all, the 'problem' is just located in a different area of the body and is an incredibly common genetic and environmentally triggered condition, so any shame associated with it is groundless."
What's more, 69% of patients with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed initially and more than one-third remained misdiagnosed for 10 years or more. That's the staggering statistic that so plainly became clear when I spoke to four women with bipolar disorder. They spent years on various medications, switching from pill to pill, unable to understand why nothing would work. Finally, after their diagnosis, things always got better. This sentiment has been echoed over and over again.
If you're struggling, seek a psychologist or a ssychiatrist who specializes in bipolar disorder and is trained to conduct assessments of some kind, and always, be engaged and proactive in your own treatment.
Below, find three women's stories.
"I am diagnosed with bipolar II as well as PTSD, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, and OCD. I experienced severe anxiety and depression throughout high school but chalked it up to being an angsty teen. I finally sought professional treatment my freshman year of college and was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and depression. My longtime boyfriend and I broke up, and I found myself debilitatingly depressed. I could not focus, I had no energy, and I could barely function. I visited the counseling center at my college, and they put me on an antidepressant. The antidepressant immediately picked up my mood but far too much. I couldn't sleep, my thoughts raced constantly, and I became incredibly impulsive.
"After about a month on the medicine, my doctor switched me to another antidepressant. I did not respond well to any antidepressants, and I ended up on a two-year, out-of-control spiral of switching, adjusting, and adding medications. Nothing ever worked and the side effects of the medication severely impacted my day-to-day life. I missed a significant amount of school and ended up getting arrested a few times for really impulsive things like stealing a pack of string cheese from Walmart. I switched doctors a few times, and my diagnosis shifted several times before I finally found a psychologist who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.
Nothing ever worked and the side effects of the medication severely impacted my day-to-day life.
Getting Diagnosed Properly
Typically, individuals with bipolar do not tolerate antidepressants, and finally getting a proper diagnosis on the bipolar stopped the terrible cycle of switching medicines. My doctor put me on a mood stabilizer, and I started feeling better and becoming productive again. While the medication worked to stabilize my moods, it did not help the borderline psychotic symptoms I experienced when under stress. Only once I found a psychologist who specialized in trauma did I get a proper diagnosis of PTSD and DDOS. With a proper diagnosis in tow, I became obsessed with researching my illness. I ended up reading a significant amount of books and found great solace that someone finally 'got' my symptoms.
"In my early searches of finding a psychiatrist, I went to several psychiatrists at my college counseling center and big practices that pretty much just wanted to go down a checklist of symptoms and adjust dosages accordingly. I had not yet gotten the PTSD and DDOS diagnosis yet, and my psychiatrist was going down his bipolar DSM checklist. When my symptoms didn't seem to fit his box, he accused me of making up symptoms. I was going through legal trouble and looking for answers. To him, I was looking for excuses. But those comments set me on a very bad, self-doubting path where I did not trust my own reality. I ended up in a full-on psychotic episode and he put me in an in-patient treatment center for a week. After extensive therapy sessions, I finally started making progress and getting into my history of trauma. Turns out bipolar disorder and trauma are very common co-conditions. I left in-patient treatment with two more diagnoses and a referral for a specialist in my area. As much as I hated my parents for making me do the in-patient treatment at the time, it essentially saved my life.
Going Off Medication
"I can say with certainty the two years of medication cycling were the worst years of my life. Not only was living it an ordeal, but I have lifelong consequences that I now must navigate. I went off all of my medication at the beginning of the year for the first time in 11 years. It was absolutely terrible weaning off of Lamictal, and I had migraine headaches pretty much daily for a few months. The motivation for going off of my medication was mostly just to see if I could. I'd been on the medication for so long and was in a more stable part of my life. I finally found a therapist who is a perfect fit and felt comfortable taking the risk. I am following IPSRT and am using bullet journaling to track my moods. I feel better now that I am equipped with the knowledge and data to monitor my moods and make adjustments as needed to prevent any symptoms or episodes. I still have mood swings and symptoms but do not feel as 'out of control' as I did before, and I appreciate having moods. As much as I needed the mood stabilizer when I was very symptomatic, I felt it did too good of a job of making me outwardly stagnant. My mind still defaulted to fight-or-flight anytime a stressor came, but I presented absolutely numb on the outside. With IPSRT, I can plan ahead for triggers or identify when a trigger is occurring and step up my self-care, talk with my therapist, or let my husband know that I appreciate an 'extra eye' on my symptoms for a little bit.
Talking to People About Mental Illness
"I'm very wary to tell people of my mental illness but try to be open as much as I feel comfortable within the moment. It's a double-edged sword—realizing the stigma needs to be broken down but not wanting to be the one to blast down that door. I'm a huge Mariah Carey fan, and her coming out recently started a more productive conversation with a lot of my friends. It was a little disheartening knowing that I confided bits and pieces to them over the years with not much understanding, but an article comes out and suddenly they get it. But I'll take progress any way I can. I think more than being labeled the 'crazy girl,' my biggest fear now is not being taken seriously. The 'millennial' stereotype of needing to be coddled and falling apart at every trigger does not help with the stigma of mental illness, and I am very conscious of not wanting to come off that way when asking for accommodations for my illness.
"Because of my criminal record, my mental illness and the two-year period of medication swaps is something I must explain when applying for employment. It's a very humiliating experience and a very delicate dance of taking responsibility for my actions and explaining the behavior is not indicative of the person I am. Now that I'm further along in my career and a decade removed from the arrests, I'm hoping this becomes less of a part of my experience.
It's a very humiliating experience and a very delicate dance of taking responsibility for my actions and explaining the behavior is not indicative of the person I am.
"My timeline of diagnosis lines up with what a lot of academic research shows as far as when the major bipolar symptoms start to present. I think, even without the trigger by medication, I would have started showing the manic symptoms in early college. The biggest thing for me in improving the quality of life was taking charge of my own mental health, doing the research, and becoming an advocate. My current therapist regularly commends me on my self-awareness and ability to think through what is going on no matter how hard my brain tries to derail me. I strongly suggest someone starting the process to devote some time to do the research on your own. So often it is hard to put into words what we are feeling and even if we do, it is up to the person hearing us to interpret our words with the same meaning. When reading books, I found better ways to word my thoughts and feelings in order to accurately convey what was going on. It also made me feel so much better to feel as though someone 'got' me and that I wasn't just imagining symptoms.
"I regret how bad the situation got in college. I've been through years of blame—blaming myself, blaming my parents, and blaming the doctors. I finally had to realize what happened happened, and I am a stronger person for the lessons I've learned. I am proud of myself for the work I've done since getting the proper diagnosis and the work I continue to do to monitor my symptoms and make lifestyle adjustments as necessary to prevent or limit the severity of symptomatic episodes."
"In the four years since my bipolar disorder diagnosis, I have not once spoken out about it. I think it is important to share that I also have a master’s degree in social work, went through years of training learning how to work with vulnerable populations, including those with mental illness, yet I still am scared of speaking out about my diagnosis.
"The diagnosis was truly the worst part. I would say that I rarely think of my illness now despite having to regularly get my blood levels checked and have three-month checkups with a psychiatrist. The diagnosis was crumbling, painful, and made me feel extremely powerless. I had to take a leave of absence from graduate school because it was too emotional of a period for me, having to handle my family telling me to go to this doctor, telling me to take this pill, telling me that I was someone who I didn't think I was.
"Once getting over that hump, once realizing that I wasn't really 'crazy,' that I just had a chemical imbalance that a pill called Lithium would take care of, I found peace with my diagnosis and life prognosis. Being at peace, and being comfortable speaking out are very different things. Clearly, the speaking out is the part that I am still working on. If this one little pill can save me from losing my loved ones, can save me from manic behavior that could destroy my professional career, why not take this pill? In fact, why even question not taking this pill? I am proud to be someone living with bipolar disorder and someone who is fully committed to remaining on medication. I am proud to finally be speaking out, to share that those of us with this diagnosis are not how the media portrays us to be, that my life is not just full of ups and downs and mood swings. Yes, life can be a roller coaster but that isn’t because I am bipolar. That is just life."
"I started showing signs of mental illness as a really small child. My parents are both therapists, so they knew something was up but not what it was exactly. I started therapy at 9.
"Things got a lot worse during puberty. My emotions were all over the place. I engaged in self-harm and a lot of other risky behaviors. I dabbled in drugs but luckily never became addicted to anything. Eventually, my parents decided to send me to residential treatment. There, I was diagnosed with a whole ton of things: major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, general mood disorder, ADD, oppositional defiance disorder, 'borderline personality clusters'… just anything they could throw at me. The time spent there did allow me to escape while doing minimal damage to myself, but it didn’t seem to help me actually learn skills. It was actually super detrimental.
Being Diagnosed With Bipolar II
"I continued living with MDD, GAD, and GMD until 2013 or so. I switched psychiatrists because my old one was starting a new practice I couldn't access, and my new doctor gave me the official diagnosis of bipolar II. At first, it was intimidating, but once I researched it, it's like everything made sense. All my prior diagnoses could be rolled up into this one. It reminded me of House cause he always said the correct diagnosis is usually the simplest one. And once I knew what I was dealing with, I could begin to learn strategies to help me cope.
At first, it was intimidating, but once I researched it, it's like everything made sense.
"Since then, I think I've improved a lot. I notice physical differences when my bipolar is triggered. I took medication for a long time, and they helped stabilize me, but (as is often the case with bipolar) I usually end up not taking them in the long run. I do see my psychiatrist monthly and focus on sleep and scheduling myself and stability. I do smoke and ingest marijuana (legal in Colorado!) and that absolutely helps me maintain a composed demeanor rather than flying off the handle when my expectations aren’t met. (It also helps me manage my expectations in the first place…)
"While I'm usually open about my past troubles and current struggles, I do find myself keeping my issues hidden in places of work. Even though I truly believe the energy and creativity I get from bipolar helps me in the work environments I've been in (artistic, creative settings), I still feel like people have a stigma against bipolar to the extent that they'd believe I was a risk at work. History has proven otherwise, as I spent five-plus years with the same organization and got promoted from intern to office and facilities manager, but in this economy, I don't feel like I want any 'strikes' against me, so I don't bring it up. I do hope for a day, or a workplace, where the assets from bipolar are considered as much as the hindrances, but I just don't feel like we are there yet.
"All that said, I don't think I would change much about my mental Illness except maybe a little less depression. Sometimes I just get so tired and unable to function in all the ways I want to, but the energy and creativity on the flip side often make up for it, at least in my mind."
National Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar disorder. Updated November 2017.
McIntyre RS, Calabrese JR. Bipolar depression: the clinical characteristics and unmet needs of a complex disorder. Curr Med Res Opin. 2019;35(11):1993‐2005. doi:10.1080/03007995.2019.1636017