In the past two or three decades, some psychiatric diagnoses have become more widely recognized and even popular. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) became commonly known in the 1980s and 1990s. So common, in fact, that it seemed more people had the diagnosis than did not. This phenomenon did not go unnoticed by mental health professionals, who initiated discussions about whether the sharp increase in diagnoses represented better awareness and diagnosis or an artificial inflation by careless providers who only wished to write prescriptions (here is one article of many).
In the past several years, Bipolar Disorder has become the new AD/HD. One merely needs to type the diagnosis into a search engine to be exposed to thousands of websites that promote screening tools, testimonials, blogs, and all varieties of treatment approaches. Not surprisingly, the same twisted popularity that gripped America with AD/HD has grafted Bipolar Disorder into its fold.
It is most important to note that Bipolar Disorder is a real illness. It is debilitating, scary, and can cause significant impacts on sufferers and their family and friends. That being said, Bipolar Disorder is incredibly rare, despite what television and internet advertisements taut. The illness is marked by behaviors that last a period of weeks or months, and range from sleeping 20 hours per day, not caring for oneself, and not eating to being full of energy for weeks at a time, spending tremendous amount of money, and engaging in reckless and dangerous activities.
Despite its rarity (around 1.5% of all people), many are led to believe they have the diagnosis. In part, this knowledge comes from pharmaceutical advertisements that shamelessly minimize the problem to “If you have mood swings, you might have Bipolar Disorder.” Even more disappointing is that many primary care physicians and psychiatrists alike affirm this diluted and painfully inaccurate version of the disorder, telling patients they have it, and putting billions of dollars in pharmaceutical companies’ pockets as a result. The presentation that patients frequently bring to mental health professionals is some version of “I can be fine one minute and then the smallest thing sets me off.” Also very common is the report that “my mood changes without reason all throughout the day.” These are not characteristics Bipolar Disorder, nor are they remotely related to it.
Healthcare professionals have an enormous responsibility to understand the conditions they are treating, to practice ethically, and communicate both of those to their patients. The blame for the widespread misinformation about Bipolar Disorder falls squarely on practitioners who lack integrity to rule out other causes and tell patients the truth about what is and is not happening to them: You don’t have Bipolar Disorder.