How can you explain Bipolar Disorder to someone that knows nothing about the illness in terms they can understand?

(I’m happy to introduce our newest author Jonathan. Read more about him here!)


How can you explain Bipolar Disorder to someone that knows nothing about the illness in terms they can understand?


Revealing a mental disorder to someone can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. Whether it’s to your parent, grandparent, boss, teacher, spouse, child, BFF, ex-BFF; each circumstance is different and carries an emotional tether that is hard to break. For me, telling even my sisters was difficult and coming out as a gay man is ten times easier than coming out as a Bipolar sufferer.

When explaining something to someone, I have learned to keep a few things in mind. Know your facts ahead of time and be ready to dispel misconceptions. Be concise and brief and warrant questions. Your listener really wants to understand, even if it seems like they are badgering you with arbitrary questions (“Did you get a second opinion?”).

Let’s consider the facts. Bipolar is a mental disorder that affects mood and behavior. These changes can be extreme, up or down. Think of normal as a line. If you go above the line, you’re manic. If you go below the line, you’re depressive. Everyone goes through this cycle, but for bipolar sufferers the deviation from the norm is usually extreme.

When a person is having a manic episode, he or she has symptoms of feeling high or overjoyed for long periods of time. At the same time, the person may be irritable and jumpy. These two symptoms have lead to most of the stereotypes and misconceptions regarding Bipolar Disorder. Behavioral symptoms include speaking very fast and sporadically, racing thoughts, periods or restlessness, having unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities, and acting upon impulses.

In contrast, when one is depressive, he or she suffers from long periods of sadness and hopelessness. Things that were once of interest to the person are now forgotten or ignored, as are obligations. Tiredness, loss of concentration, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and thoughts of suicide also occur during a depressive episode.

Unfortunately, the stereotypes revolving around Bipolar Disorder result in the subject becoming the butt of many jokes. It’s important to state how important it is to find help and receive treatment. When left untreated, Bipolar Disorder rarely goes away on its own. There are many medications available, but there are also other ways to get treated. Sitting and talking with a therapist changed my life for the better. He helped me understand what my mind was doing and why it was causing me to hate life. Several epiphanies later, I am still suffering from Bipolar Disorder, but I am now suffering with knowledge. Knowledge is the light at the end of the tunnel.

5 thoughts on “How can you explain Bipolar Disorder to someone that knows nothing about the illness in terms they can understand?

  1. Awesome post, Jonathan! When I was trying to explain (over and over and over) to my mother about my son’s condition, she just didn’t get it. So with the help of my son’s doc, who gave me some very simple brochures and such, I was able to sit down with my mom and attempt to explain again. She is still having a hard time understanding. So my next approach, if she is open to it, is inviting her over during some of my son’s cycles…so she can see with her own eyes, his behaviors and moods. I don’t know. At this point, the ball is in her court. She knows my son has a disorder. If she chooses to know more about it, she can ask or do her own research. Ignorance is not an excuse to not understanding.

    Have a happy day!!!

  2. Patti – Good points. My mom doesn’t really get it either, she thinks therapy is a bit hocus-pocus. In the end, it’s all about getting your son the help he needs, not changing anyone’s views. You’ll just have to hope she sees how happy he ends up.

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