Bipolar disorder affects almost 3% of the adult population in the United States and is being treated more and more effectively every day. However, living with the illness can still be challenging. The challenges of living with bipolar disorder include the direct mental health challenges, such as mood instability, mania, depression and suicidal tendencies. The challenges can also include the indirect effects of these symptoms, such as the ramifications of decisions made while in a manic episode, impact on friends and family and more. In addition, social stigma and isolation can affect a person with bipolar disorder’s sense of place in his or her family and community.
Managing your emotional wellbeing when moods have extreme highs and lows can be difficult. In a manic episode you may find yourself making decisions you later regret, or acting in ways that are not socially normative. In a depressive episode it may be hard just to get out of bed. You may sometimes think of suicide, which can be scary for both you and the people who care about you. Remember that good medication management is a big part of managing these symptoms, and a competent psychiatrist should listen to you and help adjust your medications if you are having too many episodes or your mental illness is interfering with your ability to function in your daily life.
Therapy can also help you learn to identify when an episode is about to start and how to find adaptive ways to cope. Preparing friends, family and roommates is important. Let them know what kinds of behaviors they should look out for and what to do if you seem out of sorts (for example, “if I start talking too much and too fast and not sleeping at night, that may be a manic episode. Please call my mom, who will contact my psychiatrist.”). Open communication about your disorder will help keep you safe and ensure that when you are not in a balanced state of mind you can get the help you need.
The indirect effects of bipolar disorder symptoms can be stressful, as well. During a manic episode some people may be promiscuous and/or have unsafe sex, which can result in an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, or even just regrets and difficult emotions after the fact. You may over-spend and find yourself with debt, or perhaps you will have sabotaged important friendships. Letting the people around you know about what happens during your manic episodes and how to intervene may help put your mind at ease.
The social impact of bipolar disorder can be significant. You may find that your friends distance themselves because of your diagnosis or because of your behaviors during depressive or manic episodes. They may just not know how to help or how to be there for you. Mental illness still carries an unfortunate strong stigma and many people have misconceptions about what bipolar disorder actually is. You can resist this stigma by talking openly with trusted friends and family about your illness and how it actually affects your life, and gain support by telling them clearly which kind of words or actions are helpful and supportive and which are not. Seeking out support groups may also help you feel less isolated.
Living with any medical illness can be challenging. However, if you are proactive about how you take care of yourself and advocate for your needs, you can be one of the millions of people living a healthy and productive life with bipolar disorder.