What Bipolar Disorder is NOT

August 12, 2020

When people hear the words bipolar disorder, they often think it means someone who struggles with frequent mood swings. It is not uncommon to hear people say, “she is so bipolar” or “every day he acts differently…he must be bipolar or something.”

People who struggle with bipolar disorder do go through phases of high energy often followed by periods of extreme depression and fatigue. However, these are “normal” or simple mood swings. The emotional highs and lows attributed to bipolar disorder tend to last for days or weeks at a time. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder, which only help to fuel the stigma around this mental illness. Below we have provided a few of these myths to help your teen and your family better understand what bipolar disorder is and what a bipolar diagnosis is not.

Also, dissolving these myths may lead to understanding how treatment for bipolar disorder is possible and that a diagnosis is not the end of your teen’s dreams and aspirations.

Myth: Bipolar Disorder is Rare

This is profoundly false. Bipolar disorder affects approximately two million people in the United States alone. Although bipolar disorder can occur at any age, it is commonly diagnosed during one’s teen years. Symptoms can vary from person to person and, if left untreated, may worsen over time. Over the last decade, many famous faces, including Demi Lovato, Russell Brand, and Catherine-Zeta Jones, have shared their own bipolar diagnoses. This has helped to further treatment options and slowly begin to reduce the stigma associated with bipolar disorder.

Myth: Bipolar Disorder is Just Mood Swings

Everybody has mood swings; however, the emotional swings associated with bipolar disorder are very different from common mood swings experienced by many each day. Teens with bipolar disorder experience extreme changes in sleep, activity, and energy that are not typical for them. Even if your teen wakes up happy, ends up cranky by lunch, and is happy again by dinner, it does not mean they have bipolar disorder. The changes in mood and energy often take days, if not weeks, to occur.

Myth: There Is Only One Type of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is more than just one single diagnosed mental illness. In fact, there are four basic types of bipolar disorder with which your teen could be diagnosed.

Bipolar I

Bipolar I is characterized by one or more depressive episodes and one or more manic episodes. Sometimes manic episodes may be accompanied by psychotic features such as delusions or hallucinations.

Bipolar II

Bipolar II is characterized by depressive features accompanied by at least one hypomanic episode. Hypomania is a less severe form of mania. A teen with bipolar II may experience either mood-congruent or mood-incongruent psychotic symptoms.

Cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia)

This type of bipolar disorder is characterized by several periods of hypomanic symptoms and numerous periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years (one year in younger children and adolescents) without meeting the defined severity requirements for a hypomanic and a depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder (otherwise not specified)

Unspecified bipolar disorder does not follow a particular pattern and is defined by bipolar symptoms, which do not fall into any of the three categories listed above.

Myth: Bipolar Disorder Happens in Regular and Predictable Cycles

Unfortunately, bipolar disorder is far from predictable.  Some teens experience symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time. These symptoms do not tend to happen in any regular or predictable pattern or with a measurable frequency. For some people, symptoms occur weekly or monthly; however, for others, they may only show up a couple of times per year.

Myth: Mania Is A Good Thing

In early manic stages, some individuals may feel good at first. But, without treatment at a facility such as Hillcrest, manic phases can become detrimental and terrifying for your teen. A manic person can lose control over their thoughts and, in some cases, lose touch with reality. Others may go on a shopping spree and spend beyond their means. Still, others may become overly anxious and hostile, snapping at their loved ones.

Myth: Bipolar Disorder Only Affects your Mood

Bipolar disorder has compounding effects on more than mere mood. Besides mood swings, bipolar disorder can impact everything from your teen’s energy levels to their sleeping patterns.

For example, if your teen is experiencing an episode of mania, they may be more likely to take significant risks, talk excessively, sleep less, and be jumpy or highly energetic. Conversely, when experiencing an episode of depression, they may lose weight, experience difficulty concentrating, and feel tired or devoid of energy.

Myth: Stress, Substances, and Genetics Do Not Impact Symptoms

Bipolar disorder may be genetically linked. Research has shown that people with certain genes or a family history of bipolar disorder may be more likely to be diagnosed than those without. However, genetics do not provide a complete reason for the cause of bipolar disorder, as many who eventually receive a diagnosis do not have a family history.

Substance use and substance abuse disorders do not cause bipolar disorder; however, they may exacerbate symptoms. Also, drug use or alcohol abuse can cause symptoms previously well managed to return. Alcohol addiction can also make it more difficult to treat symptoms associated with bipolar disorder.

Stressful events can trigger bipolar episodes or symptoms, so stress indeed impacts bipolar disorder. Many teens (and adults) with bipolar disorder commonly experience other co-occurring mental health conditions such as disordered eating, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Bipolar Disorder Is Not Untreatable

In addition to the above myths and misconceptions about bipolar disorder lies the myth that bipolar disorder is not treatable. Moreover, there is a common misconception that a bipolar diagnosis means your teen’s aspirations will now be unattainable. While it is true that bipolar disorder is not “curable,” it is highly inaccurate to state it is not treatable. There are many different treatments for bipolar disorder, including medications and various forms of psychotherapy.

As with many addictions or mental illnesses, early intervention is key to successful treatment. The sooner you seek treatment for your teen at a renowned treatment facility like Hillcrest in Los Angeles, California, the higher their chances for learning to manage their symptoms effectively. Many people find a successful treatment plan for bipolar disorder involves a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and psychoeducation.


Medication is a vital component in your teen’s individual treatment plan as it can help to stabilize the mood changes your teen is experiencing. Some common categories of medications that may be prescribed by your teen’s medical provider or the treatment staff at Hillcrest include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. It may take several tries before the medication (or combination of) that works best is found.

Psychotherapy and Psychoeducation

Psychotherapy is also commonly called talk therapy. This form of treatment can provide a valuable opportunity for your teen to learn and practice effective strategies for coping with and managing the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy used to help your teen address negative thinking patterns and behaviors that follow their thoughts. Also, family therapy can help your teen and family members learn to communicate calmly and effectively. Communication helps to reduce the overall stress levels within the family dynamic. Psychotherapy also helps to provide psychoeducation around problem-solving, developing essential self-care habits, and building individual resilience.

It is also essential to note that a vast majority, approximately 56%, of people with bipolar disorder also experience a drug or alcohol use disorder in their lifetime. Also, as previously noted, many teens with bipolar disorder experienced other mental health disorders. It is essential two select a treatment program capable of treating both co-occurring disorders. If one disorder is treated and the other is not addressed, relapse it becomes increasingly likely.

Bipolar disorder can be treated in outpatient or inpatient residential settings. The “correct” treatment setting for your teen will often depend on the severity of their symptoms. Outpatient treatment (or day treatment) programs provide individual and group therapy options as well as medical support, case management, and peer support for those struggling with bipolar disorder. Many day programs also provide education on essential topics such as coping strategies, medication management, and daily living skills.

For teens who are experiencing particularly unstable moods or if they are experiencing psychotic or suicidal thoughts and behaviors, inpatient or residential treatment may be a better course. At a residential treatment center like Hillcrest, we offer individualized inpatient treatment programs designed around your teen’s mental health needs. The first goal of bipolar disorder treatment is to stabilize mood and then move forward with other treatment program elements, including therapy, nutrition, and additional essential education.

Our premier trained team consists of medical providers, skilled counselors, nutritionists, and pharmacy professionals who work together to help your teen recover. At Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center, we understand that recovery does not end at the completion of a teen treatment program. Part of your teen’s ongoing recovery consists of interaction with treatment groups, peer groups, and ongoing work with therapy providers to ensure continued symptom management.

If your teen is struggling with the symptoms of bipolar disorder don’t wait to seek treatment. Many mental health disorders, bipolar disorder included benefit significantly from early intervention and early treatment. Bipolar disorder is most commonly diagnosed in teens, although a diagnosis can take place in younger children. The earlier intervention is sought, the more likely your adolescent or teen will learn the vital coping skills necessary to manage their symptoms and therefore manage their bipolar disorder throughout their lives. There is not a cure for bipolar disorder. However, this does not signify that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder means that your teen must give up on their dreams. Early treatment and early intervention at Hillcrest can help your teen learn vital life skills for managing their bipolar symptoms. If you were curious about how Hillcrest can help your teen give us a call today.