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Surprising Science

Bipolar Disorder Is Like Having Two Serious Illnesses at Once

NYU’s Dr. Nicole Foubister chats with us about the two-faced nature of bipolar disorder.

We’re eight weeks into our Big Thinkers on Mental Health series, which is just enough time to begin thinking retrospectively. We launched this string of videos in conjunction with the Mental Health Channel with the goal of opening discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide. So far we’ve touched on several big picture issues such as the escalation of suicide rates and mental health in the black community. What’s arguably been most successful has been the weekly acute focus on issues and disorders that are familiar to the public though not entirely understood. 

Take for example, this week’s video featuring NYU psychiatrist Nicole Foubister, who gives a quick crash course on the trials and tribulations associated with bipolar disorder:

Similar to earlier videos on obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders, the goal here is to dispel false assumptions about a well-known though commonly misunderstood mental illness. Many of us know people who have been diagnosed as manic depressive. There are over 5.7 million cases of bipolar disorder in the in the U.S. alone, equal to 2.6% of the population. And as Foubister explains, those 5.7 million people struggle with what is essentially two mental illnesses at once.

“Patients with bipolar disorder often are resistant to receiving treatment, especially during a manic episode. And this is really part of the illness in terms of not understanding that one is sick. Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, however people often find that they will go periods of time without having any illness or periods of euthymia. It really depends on the individual and how their clinical course goes as well as finding treatments that work.”

Foubister’s primary message, aside from her inclination to inform about bipolar disorder, is to help the general public understand the best approaches for interacting with and assisting those who suffer from it.

Remember that no one chooses to be manic depressive; sufferers don’t just decide that morning they feel like delving into mania. If granted the choice, anyone suffering from this illness would definitely choose to live with more mental wellness. Thus, our bipolar loved ones ought not be the target of our frustrations. That would be anomalous to blaming someone for the inconvenience their cancer diagnosis has caused you. 

“The individual will often [feel] tremendous guilt when they do have episodes of either mania or depression. And so the first thing [to remember is] that people don’t choose to have bipolar disorder and they would definitely choose to live with more mental wellness than having this illness. It’s really important to be calm, present, and consistent with people with bipolar disorder, as well as supporting them and maintaining their treatment.”

It’s our hope this series of videos has helped grow empathy and understanding for those among us suffering from psychological disorders and mental illness. We also hope those diagnosed who have watched these videos see that there is a world’s worth of allies and support at your service. Whether it’s anxietyPTSD, or young adult depression, mental health is all our battle. It’s on all of society to fight back against the pain of mental illness.


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