How To Explain Bipolar Disorder To Others


I always find it difficult to explain bipolar disorder to others. Mostly I don’t talk about my illness, but then I might be in the company of people and suddenly the subject comes up and they say: “What is that?”

And I’m looking towards the sky for answers … I can give them all the factual stuff, no problem. But I want them to truly understand the illness and the severity of the different phases. Once I’m done talking, I want them to really understand what bipolar disorder is all about, how debilitating the disease can be and how they can help a friend or family member who suffers from it.

So I surfed the encyclopedia of the world, Google, for answers and found this. I’m taking snippets from the article “Explain Bipolar Disorder To Others” from WikiHow.


Bipolar disorder is characterized by intense mood swings

To start off explaining the basics, begin by letting them know how bipolar disorder patients experience intense moods.

  • Say something like: “Bipolar disorder results in intense shifts in moods. While everyone has their highs and lows, bipolar people tend to experience these more intensely and have more extreme highs and lows than those without the disease.” You can briefly explain mania and depression. For example, say: “People with bipolar disorder experience low moods called depression as well as high moods called mania.”

Describe the depressive aspect of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is marked by periods of depression. Everyone’s depression manifests in different ways, so be clear about how your depression specifically shows itself. You should also let people know how often you experience depression and how long the period last. For example, say something like: “My depressive spells usually last a couple of weeks. I tend to feel very tired and I’m not really interested in leaving my house much. I can be slow and unsocial. Clinical depression is not just sadness – I can’t just snap out of it.”

  1. Go over mania. Mania is marked by very high moods that go on for a number of days or weeks. Explain your experience: how often manic spells occur and what kinds of behaviours you engage in. Say something like: “I can be very talkative during mania and a little hyperactive. I tend to need less sleep and I have trouble concentrating. My thoughts are out of control and I’m unable to focus on one thing.”
  2. Explain your specific diagnosis. There are varying levels of bipolar disorder. When explaining it to a loved one or friend, make sure they know your specific diagnosis.

Bipolar Disorder Type I

This is marked by more intense manic and depressive episodes that last for longer periods and may require hospitalization. Explain it by saying something like: “My episodes can be very intense and I’ve been hospitalized in the past. Episodes tend to last between seven days and two weeks.”

Bipolar Disorder Type II

This is marked by depressive episodes, but less intense manic episodes called hypomania. Say something like: “I experience hypomania at times, which is less intense than full-blown mania.”

Talk about how you manage symptoms

Tell family and friends that you are doing all that you can to manage your symptoms. Let them know your specific care plan, for example: “I’m on a mood stabilizer that I take every day.” If you are in therapy, let the person know. You can say something like: “I attend therapy every week too to talk over my moods with my counsellor.”

Debunking Myths

Make sure people know bipolar disorder is real. Unfortunately, there are still people who doubt mental illness and mental health diagnoses. If someone questions a diagnosis, or makes a comment questioning mental illness in general, speak up. It can also help to let the person know you can’t just “snap out of it”. Say something like: “The difference between bipolar disorder and just being sad and being happy is that I can’t really control my moods. I can’t just cheer up or calm down when I need to.”

Let people know what a bipolar person are capable of

There is still a lot of stigma around bipolar disorder. Many people assume those with the disorder are unable to live normal lives. Let people know this is not the case. You can compare your illness to another one, for example say: “It’s like if someone has diabetes. While they have to be careful and manage their symptoms, with the right care they are able to engage in most activities without trouble.”

Dispel misconceptions about medication

Many people have negative feelings about medication. They may think it changes a person fundamentally or makes someone numb or robotic. You can explain by saying: “People do have bad experiences with medication while finding the right treatment. But it is possible to find the exact combination of medication that works for you.”

Explain why therapy is so important

Many people think therapy is self-indulgent or unhelpful. Let people know many people benefit from therapy. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

Asking for support

Ask that friends and family members educate themselves. Encourage them to do research and read as much as they can about the illness.

Ask for social support

People who are feeling depressed sometimes isolate themselves. I know I do. Let them know what they can do if you’re struggling with a depressive episode at any point. You can ask them: “I would appreciate it if you could be there for me when I’m feeling down.”

People are often unsure what to do when someone is depressed. Let them know what you need specifically, for example you can ask them to watch a movie with you.

Discuss your symptoms with family and friends

You want people to understand the warning signs that you’re experiencing mania and depression. This can help them identify when you may need extra support. Begin with something like: “There are signs I’m experiencing mania or depression that I think you should know about.”

  • To explain depression, say something like: “If I seem really quiet and disinterested in a social event, I may be experiencing depression.”
  • To explain mania, say something like: “If I seem really energetic and unusually talkative, I may be going into a manic episode.”

Talk about the importance of stress reduction

Stress can worsen bipolar disorder, so let people know when you need a low-stress environment. For example, say something like: “When I’m depressed, I can’t handle a lot of stress. Don’t feel like I’m being rude if I cancel plans more frequently. Even small things, like going to see a movie, can cause me a lot of stress.”

Request they support any restrictions on your lifestyle

Many people with bipolar disorder have certain restrictions. You may have to stay away from alcohol – this is certainly one thing that people don’t understand when I tell them that I can’t drink any alcohol due to medication.

Let them know how they can support your lifestyle restrictions. You can say: “Alcohol tends to make my depression worse, so I don’t drink. I would appreciate it if you didn’t invite me out to bars, because I tend to feel left out when other people are drinking.”



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