Breaking the Stigma: Bipolar Disorder


Brittany Lewis (left) and Sarah K. (right)

Katherine Camarata, Staff Reporter

Bipolar disorder is often misrepresented in media or everyday conversations, but it encompasses so much more than vague, dramatic stereotypes. CWU community members shared their experience to break down the stigma tied to openly talking about mental health. 

“It makes you really happy sometimes … you’re the life of the party,” CWU alumna Brittany Lewis said. “Then there are times when the world feels like it’s crushing you. It’s sometimes like a rollercoaster. Thankfully there’s a lot of in-between too. It’s not always one or the other.”

Bipolar disorder is divided into different categories, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 (DSM-5). Bipolar 1 is categorized by alternating moods between depressive episodes and manic episodes which can last several months to years, while bipolar 2 includes hypomanic episodes instead of manic episodes, which have a shorter duration and are less severe. 

There are other forms of bipolar disorder such as cyclothymic disorder which is less severe overall or rapid-cycling bipolar disorder which involves switching between mania and depression many times within a week or day depending on the person. 

According to the DSM-5, the course of bipolar disorder is chronic, meaning the mood cycling tends to last a lifetime. Approximately 1% of the population has experienced the disorder in their lifetime. The cause of mood cycling varies from individual to individual, and everybody copes in their own way. 

“When I’m manic, my temperature tends to be higher. I tend to want to pace and move around,”  Sarah K., a senior majoring in computer science, said. “My brain jumps from topic to topic faster than normal. Concentrating on things is either extremely difficult or very easy.” 

According to Lewis, her moods are often based on the weather. In the winter, she said she is more likely to experience depression, while in the summer she is more likely to experience mania. The difference between mania and depression is usually severe. Sarah K. described her experience as volatile and similar to being under the influence. 

“It’s kind of like being drunk at a party versus being sad drunk by yourself,” Sarah K. said. “That feeling of elation you can have with drinking, that’s kind of like being manic. When you’re kind of by yourself and drinking and you don’t really want to be drinking, you’re kind of lonely, that’s more depressed. Sometimes I’ll be manic for twenty minutes, then really depressed for a half hour, then I’ll get manic again for five minutes, then depressed five minutes later. Days like that are just exhausting.”

While the diagnosing process is helpful for many, some patients do not have the best experience after being diagnosed. 

“When I was first diagnosed, I felt really alone, like nobody else has bipolar disorder,” Lewis said. “It takes time, it’s not a fun process. The mental health system needs some work and that’s something I think a lot of people are trying to change.” 

According to Lewis, having a support system is essential for coping with symptoms. Lewis said she found community by volunteering for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Yakima chapter, which also covers Kittitas and Grant counties. 

According to the NAMI website, the organization is “dedicated to promoting change that will contribute to an improved quality of life” and works with the mental health system to accomplish this. 

“I had to stop fighting it. I think that was my biggest issue to begin with … I fought it the whole way like I could control this,” Lewis said. “There are times when I can’t, and that’s got to be okay.” 

There is no end-all-be-all solution for symptoms, and each person must find what works for them personally. Lewis said dancing, tracking her mood and taking care to avoid alcohol and triggering situations are helpful strategies for her.

“I took medication when I was a teenager,” Sarah K. said. “It did even me out, however I personally felt when I wasn’t experiencing any ups or any downs, life was very dull and I became very stagnant. It wasn’t for me, but I know plenty of people who need it to function. Sometimes it’s worth a chance to take prescribed medication.” 

According to Sarah K., it’s important to try out different methods of dealing with mania and depression. She said drinking tea, punching a punching bag or going on a run can be effective. Sarah K. said the community could use more data on how common the disorder is and resources that allow people to stay anonymous. 

Sarah K. said she is very open with people in her life about her experience with bipolar disorder, and this openness helps her relationships. 

“If anyone I care about wants to continue that relationship, then this is a part of me and they’ll accept that,” Sarah K. said. 

For those who spend time around people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lewis said it’s important to ask questions and do research instead of making assumptions. 

Try to be understanding of where they are coming from,” Lewis said. “Having someone listen to us and acknowledge what we’re saying and not being scared … That connection is so important for people with bipolar disorder, to know that we are seen and heard and actually loved.”