Bipolar disorder, which is characterized by unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to handle daily tasks, is usually diagnosed when a person is in their late teens or early adulthood.

Professional diagnosis and treatment are key to living well with bipolar disorder, but stigma often gets in the way.

A recent qualitative study looked at perceived public stigma and perceived public exposure by people living with bipolar disorder. The study identified three elements of public stigmas:

  • Stereotypes: negative beliefs that people with mental illness are dangerous, incompetent, or have weak character
  • Prejudice: agreement with stereotypes and reacting emotionally to people in a stigmatized group
  • Discrimination: avoiding or mistreating people due to prejudice

A 2021 study examined the role of self-stigma in serious mental illness. This type of stigma is internalized. In other words, it refers to a person believing the stigmatized view of themselves is true, making it difficult for them to express their previous personal identity.

The systemic literature review found that those with a serious mental illness who internalized the stigma had poor clinical and functional outcomes.

Self-stigma can make people less likely to seek help for mental illness, which is often related to poor outcomes. The same is true for public stigma, or perceived public stigma.

According to the 2021 Mood Disorder Survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 84% of respondents reported that this perceived stigma is a barrier to seeking treatment for mood disorder symptoms. In fact, 61% said that people treated them differently after learning they have a mood disorder.

Stigma also impacts the families of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They may experience social isolation and rejection as well.

Research shows that stigma contributes to suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and lower quality of life.

Bipolar disorder symptoms include:

  • irritability
  • depression
  • trouble concentrating
  • loss of interest in activities

These symptoms can make it difficult to maintain social and professional relationships. If a person with bipolar disorder is hesitant to seek help or talk about their symptoms due to stigma, relationships may be even more strained.

Manic episodes of bipolar disorder may cause an increased desire for intoxicating substances, sex, and other pleasurable activities. Self-medicating instead of seeking professional treatment may also be a problem for people who are living with bipolar disorder.

For many people, the stigma can make living with bipolar disorder even more difficult, but the first step in de-stigmatizing the disorder is to seek and accept a diagnosis.

This is the only way to get effective professionally directed treatment for your symptoms. Managing the symptoms of bipolar disorder can help you cope and begin to see the disorder as something to be treated, not something to keep hidden.

Bipolar disorder is usually treated with medication and psychotherapy.

Effective medications include:

  • mood stabilizers
  • atypical antipsychotics
  • antidepressants
  • anti-anxiety medications

Finding the best medication and right dose can take a little trial and error. Treatment plans and medications prescribed vary from person to person. Because there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing the symptoms of bipolar disorder, which also vary, it’s important to work with your doctor on a customized plan.

Types of psychotherapy used to treat bipolar disorder include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • interpersonal and social rhythm therapy
  • family-focused therapy

In some cases, bipolar disorder is treated with electroconvulsive therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or light therapy.

People with bipolar disorder can be symptom-free for long periods, but bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition with the possibility for recurrence of manic or depressive episodes. Continuous treatment is the best way to manage it long term.

The more aware people are of the realities of living with bipolar disorder, the less likely they are to believe in stereotypes. When stereotypes are discarded, the stigma is less likely to perpetuate.

A 2015 study of 753 people in the United Kingdom found that participants generally had a positive attitude toward bipolar disorder and a low desire to distance themselves from people diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Helping people with bipolar disorder learn about research like this could alleviate their internalized stigma or fear of public stigma. It can also help people be more open about their diagnosis, which can lead to regular medical care and a doctor-prescribed treatment plan.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends these strategies to reduce stigma:

  • Talk with others about your mental health challenges. (In a 2021 survey, 75% of people said that others were interested and supportive when they shared their experience with mood disorder.)
  • Be mindful of how you speak about mental health by using person-first language (“person with bipolar disorder” rather than “bipolar person”), avoiding colloquial use of diagnoses (“I’m so bipolar” when referring to a normal change in mood), and avoiding words like “crazy” or “insane.”
  • Don’t make assumptions about conditions you’re unfamiliar with, and support other people’s recovery from mental health conditions.

Media portrayals of people with bipolar disorder can also reduce stigma by raising awareness. On the other hand, the media can perpetuate misconceptions by covering bipolar disorder incorrectly or in a sensational way.

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to live with, especially without continuous professional treatment. Public stigma and internalized stigma can make it hard for people with bipolar disorder to seek and stick with treatment.

The best way to overcome stigma is to counter harmful stereotypes by educating the public about bipolar disorder. People can also heal their own internalized stigma by seeking support and speaking openly about their mental health.