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T. Brown Writing

Growing Up With Bipolar

It was a January morning when I felt frustrated in my counselor’s office because I felt she was not listening to me. To make matters worse, she continued to tell me that I was doing great. It was after one of this frustrating counseling session that I explained to my wife that “My counselor is not listening to anything I say.” Usually, my wife would tell me to be patient. However, this time, she advised me to see a psychiatrist because therapy and my medicine were clearly not working. Well I gave her suggestion some serious thought and I decided to contact my primary physician whom quickly approved my request for a referral.

There was a two months waiting list. For those months, I struggled. I could go days on end without any sleep or eating. Then I found myself in bed for days at a time. During that time, I cried and drifted a lot. At the time, I could not comprehend the fact that I was experiencing manic and depressive episodes.

This is just my story, one out of several thousands of people who suffer from bipolar disorder. Over the last two years, I educated myself on bipolar disorder and the effects it has on a person and their family. Bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose because the people it affect may never seek help. Also, a person may only experience a manic episode one in their life. However, in order to understand how bipolar disorder can be misdiagnosed, one must understand bipolar disorder and how it is diagnosed.

In the broadest aspect, bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes severe shifts in a person’s mood and energy level. As a result, this inhibits the person’s ability to handle daily responsibility. Also, the effects of Bipolar disorder damage a person’s personal and professional life.

Bipolar disorder has different classifications and thus different treatment.  Bipolar Disorder is described by distinct and extreme emotional states called “mood episodes” and “depressive episodes”. Manic episodes are described as an extreme euphoria and overly excited state. Symptoms of a mania episode are overly inflated sense of self confidence in one’s ability to do ordinary tasks. Also, a person may become extremely irritable and agitated. Some signs that may indicate that a person may be experiencing a manic episode may include a sudden increase in goal orientated projects. The behavior of a person in the midst of a manic episode may include racing thoughts which causes them to jump from one thought to another. They may become easily distracted. A person who is experiencing a manic episode may feel they don’t need to sleep or eat. Consequently, a person in the midst of a manic episode may partake in impulsive and high risk pleasurable activities (e.g. sex, spending sprees, and business ventures).

Depressive episodes are described as period of feeling sad, hopeless and being despondent. Symptoms of depressive episode include periods of being worried, loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed. Some signs that may indicate that a person may be experiencing a depressive episodes includes feeling lethargic, struggling concentrating, irritable, insomnia or sleeping too much, change in appetite and thoughts or attempting of suicide.

Now that I briefly defined bipolar disorder, I can now discuss how bipolar disorder could be misdiagnosed and the ramification of it being misdiagnosed. According to most research twenty percent of the population is suffering or has suffered from a mental illness. Moreover, more than half of that number suffers from more than one mental illness. With that said, what are the causes of bipolar disorder being misdiagnosed?

A U.K study suggests that up to 20 percent of patients that are being treated for depression may have bipolar disorder. Moreover, prescribing antidepressants could worsen the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Patients with undiagnosed bipolar disorder that is being treated with antidepressants could be induced into a manic episode or the symptoms of depression may worsen. Moreover, the patients may experience severe mood swings. With all the available information about bipolar disorder and other mental disorder, how can health care professional misdiagnosed bipolar disorder?

One of the major reasons bipolar disorder is misdiagnose is because the patient may not be forthcoming about the symptoms that are experiencing. Because bipolar disorder usually develop during someone’s late teens and early adulthood and it is not diagnosed for decades after the initial onset, someone may not recognize something is wrong until later in their life. Unfortunately, many of the 20 percent who is not being treated bipolar disorder is never diagnosed. As a result, they many may develop problems with alcohol and substance abuse in attempts to self-medicate. This causes more problems because alcohol and substance abuse may further complicate or prolong the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Some people intentionally withhold information about their symptoms because they feel shame and fear of judgment.  They feel people may perceive them as “weak-minded” or “crazy”. Their fear is not unfounded. Despite the amount of education that is available about mental illness, there is still a stigma attached to the subject. As a result, a person may never reach out for help, thus never being treated.

Some people unintentionally withhold information about their symptoms because they do not feel their symptoms are a problem. Many patients may not experience a manic episode until later in life and struggle with depression throughout their life. Consequently, their mental health care provider many only treat the depression symptoms with antidepressants which may induce a manic episode.

Another reason bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed is the counselor may overlook or ignore the symptoms. This is more dangerous because the patients that are receiving counseling are not getting the help they really need. A therapist can only make a diagnosis based on the information that is given to them by their patients. However, being a counselor requires probing into information that the patient does not talk about. This is probably the most important job of the therapist because not having the insight on the patient’s life could lead to dangerous outcomes.

Some therapists become complacent in their jobs and completely overlook the symptoms displayed in front of them. There are too many people with bipolar disorder being misdiagnosed and diagnosed later in their life. Consequently, a patient’s suffering with bipolar disorder life is usually in shambles. Only a fortunately few, like myself, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder in time to prevented irreparable damage. The problem with bipolar (and mental illness in general) as opposed to physical illness is it can’t be seen. Moreover, a person who may have a mental illness may look as if nothing is ailing them at all. This is where a therapist’s insight comes into play. It is the therapist’s jobs to make sure that they understand everything that the patient is telling them and perhaps not telling them.

I was sitting in my physiatrist’s office and explaining to her that I was still struggling with depressions. She asked questions about my behavior when I am not depressed. It seemed as if she was on to something. She told me that she was concerned that I was on the verged on going into a manic episode. I was relieved more than anything because perhaps I may be diagnosed with something with actually fits what I’m going through. It is a good feeling that I may finally be pushed into the right direction.

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I grew up feeling as if something was wrong with me. People treated me like I was mentally ill all my life. As a child, I was a shy and quiet with an active imagination and with the tendency to talk to myself. Of course, I could hardly say that I was mentally ill. At least, I was not able to say it at that time. By the time, I was 15 years old, I learned coping mechanism. When people see me mumbling to myself and ask, “To whom are you talking?” I would respond, “I’m singing to myself,” or, “My eyes are hurting.” Also, I tried to keep my imagination in check and not to allow it get the best of me. Those were my coping mechanism. My way of having people not think I’m was crazy. Of course, I’m not nor ever was crazy. However, I do have bipolar disorder, a mood disorder that causes me to have manic episodes and bouts with major depression. Before I educated myself about how bipolar disorder affects people, I felt as if I was a weakness. I spent a good part of my early adulthood trying to avoid a break down. I did not want to be hospitalized or have to take medications for the rest of my life. The thought of this cloud hanging over my head was difficult to bear. This was my private shame that I carried with me well into my adulthood. Whenever, I went to doctors, I lied about my symptoms. I never admitted to having symptoms of depression (or manic rather). I never admitted to hearing voices. As a result, I carried the unnecessary perception that I was mentally weak.

Mental illness has a stigma attached to it, particularly in the African America community. Some people are hesitant to get help because they fear being treated differently. Also, many African Americans who suffer from mental illness lack family support and do not know where to reach out for help. There is little information about how mental illness affects a person and the people that are close them. With that said, education is the best way to erase the stigma attached to mental illness. It needs to be understood that most mental illness is a chemical imbalance.

The problem with mental illness as opposed to physical illness is that it can’t be seen. For the most part you can’t look at someone and know they are mentally ill. Moreover, a person who may have a mental illness may look as if nothing is ailing them. Consequently, a person acknowledging they have a mental illness may be labeled as weak-minded or crazy. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, 25 percent of the population has or is suffering from a mental illness and half of that group suffers from more than one mental illness.

The issue of mental health is not discussed enough in the African American community. A person is supposed to keep their “head issues” to themselves. This ideology causes two problems. The first problem is a person suffering from mental illness may never reach out for help. They may feel that, “I just need to get myself together.” With this mindset, they may not reach out for help. The second problem involves the biology of mental illness. There are many links between mental illness and heredity. If the mental illness is talked about more in the African American community, perhaps better treatment options and support may become available.

At first, finding out that I may have bipolar disorder was disappointing because I felt too weak to handle my own mind. My counselor advised me to educate myself about bipolar disorder and its causes. She gave me a pamphlet with basic information and a list of resources. Once I arrived home, I googled bipolar disorder and up came a plethora of information. Of course, I only needed creditable sites with information about symptoms, causes, and treatment. Not once did I see weak mental capacity as one of the causes. Moreover, I learned bipolar is highly treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and medicine.

The stigma of mental health in the African American community is unnecessary especially if the stigma is preventing people from seeking and receiving treatment. With education and awareness the stigma attached to mental illness can be lifted.