Health Advice



Hearing about bipolar disorder in the news or on social media? Here's what you should know

Karen Garcia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

In the news or on social media, we hear the term "bipolar disorder" a lot.

Whether it's celebrities opening up about their diagnoses or an investigation finding that a person has struggled with the illness, such accounts often shape people's perceptions of this mood disorder that can manifest in countless ways and be difficult to diagnose.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance defines bipolar disorder as a treatable mental health condition marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behavior and notes that "it's not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness."

A widely known symptom of the illness is manic episodes, which are marked by elevated changes in mood or behavior. But many people with a bipolar disorder diagnosis more commonly experience depressive episodes.

"It's important to recognize that bipolar disorder is a mental illness, meaning that there isn't necessarily a physical underpinning for it," said Dr. Curley Bonds, chief medical officer for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

There's also a school of thought among some mental health professionals in which the condition is understood as a spectrum, rather than in rigid categories.


Mental health experts spoke with The Times about how bipolar disorder is defined, the push to understanding the condition on a spectrum, how people are treated and the stigma that can come with a diagnosis.

What to know about bipolar disorder

The illness affects men and women equally, with about 2.8% of the U.S. population diagnosed with bipolar disorder and nearly 83% of cases classified as severe, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

The alliance says scientists believe the mental illness is caused by several factors, including genetics, stress and brain structure and function.


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