3 Simple Ways to Explain Bipolar to Friends and Family

Believe it not, I am asked what bipolar is more often than you would think. To me, and the majority of my readers, bipolar disorder is a known quantity. I don’t need to explain it because the people who seek me out are either living with this illness or know someone who is.

Recently, I had the good fortune to present to a group of police officers as part of the Crisis Intervention Training program (CIT) and a young officer in the back raised his hand and asked, “Can you tell me what bipolar is?”

I told him that bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is marked by alternating periods of extremes lows (depression) and extreme highs (mania). He thanked me and the training continued.

Medical Definition of Bipolar Disorder Versus Lay Person’s Definition

Later that evening, I thought back to the officer’s question and how I answered it. My answer was perfectly accurate, but did it allow him to understand bipolar or just confuse him further? I suspected that it didn’t do much to educate him, although I can’t be sure without asking him.

In order to prevent any such confusion in the future, I decided to brainstorm simpler ways to explain bipolar disorder to people who didn’t understand, but want to.  In no particular order, here are my top three:

  1. Bipolar disorder is a spectrum of moods that goes from the lowest of lows (suicidal depression) all the way up to the highest of highs (“god-like” mania), and everything in between. The person suffering from bipolar is unable to control where their moods fall on this spectrum, or how long that mood will last before transitioning.
  2. Bipolar disorder is a severe and persistent mental illness with a 15% death rate. Typical symptoms include racing thoughts (which lead to hurried and nonsensical speech); rapid mood swings, ranging from depression all the way to mania; staying awake for days at a time without tiring; and grandiose thinking, such as believing you have more fame, money, or authority than you really do.
  3. Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects the mind. Specifically, it alters a person’s ability to control their moods, thoughts, and the way they see the world around them. A person suffering from bipolar will travel back and forth on a very long mood spectrum that they cannot control. This includes moods typical people will never experience, such as suicidal thoughts or living in a consequence-free environment where a person feels invincible.

Bipolar Mug from gabehoward.comObviously, there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to explain bipolar disorder simply. Using the comment sections below, tell us how you explain bipolar so that your friends and family can better understand.

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