Bipolar disorder is not a character flaw: Psychiatrist

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World Bipolar Day is March 30Lifeline 13 11 14Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

When television producer Adam Boland spoke out recently about having bipolar disorder, the nation got a glimpse into what it was like to suffer from the debilitating mood disorder.


But as one psychiatrist told SBS, people who have bipolar are still stigmatised and misunderstood.

“This is not a character flaw, I think that’s how it’s been interpreted in the past – that their behaviour is due to a weakness or their immaturity,” said Professor Phil Mitchell, Head of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales.

“There’s still a lot of stigma attached to having bipolar disorder.”

Professor Mitchell said bipolar is a real condition that is no different to having diabetes or cancer.

“There’s no doubt that this is an illness that affects the brain… this is not the person’s will, they’re not manipulating others or making life difficult for others. This is a real condition that is no different to any other medical conditions.”

The day after Boland spoke out about having bipolar, Sunrise hosts David Koch and Sam Armatage were accused of making snide remarks about his condition live on air.

Koch had dismissed claims that he was getting replaced before adding that “saner heads prevailed.”

“I’ve been getting emails from people last night and on Twitter saying ‘are you going to be sacked from the show?'” Koch said. “Well no, it was 2011 from a bloke who’d moved on and saner heads prevailed.”

The hosts have since apologised for their “poor choice of words” after a huge online backlash.

It’s just one of many examples why greater awareness of bipolar disorder is perhaps needed.

“The more the public understand it, the more the stigma will reduce,” said Professor Mitchell, who is also a psychiatrist at The Black Dog Institute.

“People with bipolar are hit with a double whammy – they’re dealing with a condition that’s making them do things and think things that are different to their normal selves.

“And at the same time, they’re dealing with the stigma of having a serious mental illness like bipolar which is poorly understood which leads to discrimination in the workplace and in relationships.”

Supporting family members or friends with the disorder can be difficult but Professor Mitchell said people need to “hang in there.”

“If you have a friend or family with bipolar, recognise that they’re going to need support as much as if they were suffering from a serious infection, cancer, heart disease.

“Part of the difficulties for people with bipolar is they often feel isolated from others. Others don’t want to be with them, they feel uncomfortable.

“It’s important to hang in there. And just to recgonise that my friend or my loved one is going through something that is quite distinct from their normal selves.”


Full interview: Psychiatrist Professor Phil Mitchell on World Bipolar Day


What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that affects one to two per cent of Australians.

People with the illness function normally for most of their lives, but sometimes they will fluctuate between periods of overactivity (known as mania) and severe depression.

“During those times [of mania], people’s judgement is affected,” said Professor Mitchell. “They’re disinhibited, they’re more likely to spend money or give things away, they’re more likely to engage in relationships that they usually wouldn’t.”

When they experience bouts of depression, it’s more than just being sad or unhappy. Professor Mitchells said they may be profoundly slow in their thinking or movements, and may sleep a lot.

“The difficulty is during those times, they can have profound suicidal thoughts,” he added. “We know that people with bipolar disorder have a much higher rate of completed suicide than the rest of the community.”


What is the cause of bipolar disorder?

It’s a strongly inherited condition, said Professor Mitchell, so having a family history of bipolar is a good predictor of whether someone will develop the condition.

“The condition normally presents in the late teens or twenties – so it’s fairly predictable when it first begins. So if there’s a history in the family, then that needs to be closely observed.

“We know that if you have the tendency to have bipolar, then certain substances can trigger off episodes of mania or depression,” he said. “For example, if you have a family history of bipolar, then you should avoid using cannabis, methamphetamines and other illicit medications. Sometimes stress can trigger off episodes in people who are predisposed.”

He said researchers are currently looking into the genetic determinants of the disease.


Where to get help

If you need help, please contact one of the organisations below:


For all ages

24hr helpline: 13 11 14

Chat online

Suicide Call Back Service

For all ages

24hr helpline: 1300 659 467

Chat online

Beyond Blue

Ph: 1300 22 4636

Sane Australia 

Ph: 1800 18 SANE (7263)

Black Dog Institute

Clinics: (02) 9382 2991 

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