Are the effects of bipolar disorder able to be hidden, or is it obvious when someone has this disorder? Is it more or less visible in children than adults? Can a person cover up the effects?
As a person living with bipolar II disorder I believe that most people who have bipolar have felt the need to hide their bipolar symptoms from others at some point and time. However I think that people are generally only able to do so for a short period of time. I have found that my bipolar symptoms eventually do surface and I am not always able to conceal them. However I think it is also dependent on how well a person knows you as to whether having bipolar will be “obvious” or not to others. My disorder seems to be less obvious or not obvious at all to people who are not familiar with bipolar disorder and its symptoms. People who have little or no knowledge about bipolar disorder typically only notice that something is “different” about me and seem to not realize that I have a mental illness.
It has been my experience that an outside observer may pick up on one or two behaviors/symptoms that I may be exhibiting. However they usually do not recognize enough signs to lead them to believe that I have bipolar disorder. For instance they may only think something like, “that person is kind of moody” or “that person seems to always be on the go”. Because my moods can change many times throughout the course of a day or a week I think that the likelihood of others figuring out that I have bipolar disorder is quite low. After all there are some people who are just “moody” by nature and don’t have a mental illness. If someone were to track the fluctuations in my mood over time then they may suspect that I have bipolar, but I don’t know of anybody who does that aside from my doctor. From time to time I sense that I am seen by others as being “ambivalent” about things when in actuality I am in the midst of a depressive episode. In other words it is not that “I do not care about anything” but that I am actually experiencing the symptoms of a depressed mood. Again that alone will likely not lead others to think that I have bipolar disorder.
In contrast the following day or a week later I may be perceived by others as being very passionate about things, energetic, on the go, very restless and easily agitated. Most times what I find is that people are unable to link those changes in my behavior to being a sign of bipolar disorder. I just don’t think most people are aware of when my symptoms of mania and/ or depression are present. So in most cases I tend to think that my bipolar disorder is not “obvious” to people who do not know me well and/or know little about the disorder. It is not that I am “concealing” or “hiding” that I have bipolar but it is more so that the other person does not see all of my symptoms as a whole and therefore does not recognize that I have the disorder.
I also believe that my symptoms are not always visible or obvious because no one bipolar case is the same. For instance I may suffer more often from depression than mania whereas one of my bipolar friends may experience mostly mania and only the odd depressive episode. The way we experience our symptoms and the effect they have on us is very individual. I think that this too can make it hard for others to detect bipolar disorder in a person. Furthermore if a person’s bipolar symptoms are under good control with medication and with such things like attending therapy and support groups, any bipolar symptoms that are present may not be obvious to the outside world because the symptoms are being managed and are harder to see.
On the contrary some people experience very severe, intense symptoms which are difficult to control and/or manage and in those cases bipolar disorder may become more noticeable to others. And of course if someone is out of control and their symptoms are extreme that person’s behavior will be highly visible to the point where they may even require police intervention or hospitalization. I really cannot see how a person who is in that kind of mental state being capable of “hiding” any of their bipolar symptoms. So I think that there really is no “cut and dried” answers as to whether one’s bipolar disorder is visible to others or not at any given time. I think it really depends on the severity of the symptoms, the situation and whether or not the person is able to cope and manage the disorder. For the most part I believe that people with bipolar disorder should try not to worry about having to “hide their bipolar symptoms” because of a fear that others will find out that we have the disorder. It is my opinion that if we are to worry about others discovering that we have bipolar disorder we will only end up becoming highly anxious about all sorts of people, situations and environments. I have had those types of fears in the past but I know from experience that worrying or obsessing about such things is not good for anyone’s mental health including my own.
That is not to say that people with bipolar disorder do not attempt to hide it at times throughout their lives. Sometimes it is in our best interest to conceal it as much as possible, especially in environments where there is a lot of stigma and discrimination against mental illness. Some people go to great lengths to try and conceal their illness for fear that if they don’t they will end up having problems at work, school, or with friends and family. This can be a reality for people with bipolar and I can completely understand the desire to try and” cover up” one’s symptoms in certain situations. For me it is a matter of “choice” and “self-preservation” and dependent on the situation as to whether I feel like I need to hide the effects my illness may have upon myself or others. If I am dealing with people who have a lot of misconceptions and prejudices about bipolar disorder I tend to be very cautious about everything. I limit how much I interact with certain people especially if I suspect that someone has me pegged as having bipolar disorder and if I think they will react to me in a negative or discriminatory manner. So yes there are times where I feel like I cannot be myself and have to work very hard to try to keep my bipolar in check. I don’t see this as “hiding my bipolar disorder” from others but rather as a “defense mechanism” that I occasionally need to use to protect myself from being “stigmatized or scrutinized”. I prefer to be in environments and around people where I feel safe and protected from this but that is not always possible or realistic. So I just deal with it as best as I can because I am not ashamed of having bipolar disorder. It is what it is and it is something I have to cope with for the rest of my life.
With regards to children/youth I think that sometimes bipolar disorder can be more visible with them as compared to adults. In a lot of ways it is easier to see their symptoms mainly because young people generally have less self-control and limited coping skills/mechanisms. Over time most adults with bipolar have learned how to manage and control their symptoms fairly well whereas children/youth likely have not developed many tools to help them cope with the disorder. Some parents do not believe in having their child medicated as well and that can make symptoms more visible to others. Additionally more often than adults kids with bipolar can act out in a way that is out of control and sometimes dangerous to themselves or others. Of course there are some adults with mental illness who act out in similar ways but this seems to be more prevalent or maybe just more obvious with young people. I also think that because youth are in the school system their bipolar symptoms/behaviors are identified more often by teachers and counsellors as many of them are more aware of mental health issues these days.
Furthermore it is generally much harder for kids than it is for adults to try and “hide” things. Besides, no matter how hard we try and suppress our symptoms or attempt to conceal them from others they will surface. What is important is that we learn how to manage those symptoms and cope with them as opposed to trying to “hide them”. It will not do us any good to try and hide our symptoms, stay in denial about them, or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. That will only make things worse for us in the end. Educating ourselves and the general public is one of the best things that we can do with regards to minimizing and hopefully eliminating the myths, stigmas, and prejudices against all of us who deal with mental illness every day. So rather than feeling like you have to “hide” your illness from others, be yourself, live your life and try to debunk any of the myths that you are confronted with. This may not always be easy but by doing so you will be helping yourself along with the rest of us who have bipolar disorder. Thank you for your questions and please send any further questions or comments that you may have to www.askabipolar.com – Vicky Summers