what is bipolar disorder?

So, You Think They Have Bipolar?

Jerry Kennard Health Guide April 14, 2009
  • One of the most frequently asked questions about bipolar disorder goes along the lines of, "I suspect my (name/relationship) has bipolar, what should I do?" The question may appear simple but it's actually loaded with assumptions and potentially different ways it might be answered. In this sharepost I attempt to unpack just some of reasons why answering such a question is actually quite difficult. In so doing I'll be leapfrogging around with a few ideas and personal observations - hopefully it won't be too distracting.

     

    Anyone with an internet connection knows how easy it is to access medical advice and information. Access to health information via the internet represents an acceleration of what was already recognized as a booming industry by television, books, newspapers and magazines.

     

    The movement for self-knowledge and self-empowerment via the internet has both merits and disadvantages. In terms of advantages, people are more aware than ever of their health and its intricacies. In terms of the disadvantages, I'm more aware than ever before of the tendency for people to medicalize sensations, emotions and behaviors even though, to my mind, they fall within the bounds of normality. Awareness and sensitivity to health issues is great, but when it extends to the willingness of people to make lay-diagnoses, I think we move into murky territory. Self-diagnosis can be problematic but at least only one person is affected. 'I suspect' diagnosis can have all sorts of upsetting consequences even when motives are sincere and well-intentioned.

     

    To be charitable, the, ‘I suspect' statement suggests the person has an element of doubt about what they are asking. Increasingly the, ‘I'm absolutely convinced' statement is making its mark. Is there really a difference between the two? Well, that's yet to be determined, but it perhaps says something about the nature of research via the internet. This is the main source of information for many people and may give rise to false confidence. The internet frequently provides short cuts to complex issues. Some of this is poor but well intended, some is good (given obvious limitations), some should be trashed.

     

    So, we return to the question. "I suspect my husband/boyfriend has bipolar", how might I answer? Well, there's the, ‘see if you can get them to see a doctor' response; it's safe and potentially very useful advice. The question per se is clearly one of concern and I wouldn't want to diminish this.

     

    But, very briefly, let me play devil's advocate with the question. Even if we accept the very real possibility that another person has bipolar, we can't actually assume anything about that person in terms of their willingness to seek help or treatment. Diagnosis by a qualified health professional can be quite tricky. After all, some people with bipolar may never have been diagnosed. Some have, but go through their lives without treatment. Some turn to alternative therapies. Some, of course, sign up to conventional medical treatments and stick with it because in weighing up the costs and benefits they perceive more benefits (sometimes not). It's not my intention to cause confusion where help is genuinely being sought but I think it is useful to illustrate some different perspectives.

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    If your partner recognizes their moods or behavior are causing them or others distress and they see some pattern in this, your support in helping them with proper medical diagnosis and treatment options is likely to be one of the most positive and significant things you can do.

     

    I recognize that this is a somewhat patchy sharepost so I'd appreciate your thoughts and comments to help extend and refine it - and perhaps throw a few more perspectives into the pot.