Meet Ailie. A lawyer, mother and friend. When she’s not working on her current case, you can find her creating a new craft, enjoying a hike with her dog, or cycling. What may not be apparent on the outside is that Ailie lives with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that affects about 60 million people worldwide. With bipolar disorder, people experience episodes of depression and episodes of mania. The episode of depression in bipolar disorder is the same as other types of depression, whereas mania or hypomania is an unusually high mood for the person. People may feel like their thoughts are racing and may feel hyperactive. This has been described as feeling unrealistically confident, happy, or overly powerful. They may even act impulsively and take uncharacteristic risks.
Although stigma is pervasive within all mental illnesses, this is especially true for bipolar disorder. For Ailie, she is all too familiar with the negative perceptions that come along with her illness.
“I think you hear about celebrities coming out with this diagnosis and you sometimes hear some of the crazy stuff some of the celebrities have done, and people think that’s everybody with bipolar disorder. We don’t all do crazy things. Sometimes [we do], but that’s not what we do day-to-day. We live normal lives, go to work, go to school, just normal things.”
Arguably one of the most destructive issues related to stigma is the inaccuracies portrayed in the media and how mental illness is reported on. More often than not, the media will focus on negative stories and stereotypes as opposed to what can be done to improve mental health care, such as increasing community-based services and peer support.
“What I’m seeing is stories in the media oh you know, this person slipped through the cracks, didn’t get care, and it’s very negative where that’s part of it but I’m not seeing a lot in terms of what can we do to improve things. Not just within the healthcare system but how can we improve things with the resources we’ve got because resources are so limited.”
Fortunately, Ailie was able to access the care she needed through her family doctor and psychiatrist. But this isn’t always the case. Millions of Canadians don’t have a family doctor they can turn to for support and mental health care. In fact, only 1 in 3 Canadians will get the mental health care they need because the care is either unavailable or isn’t covered by public health insurance.
One of the more comprehensive supports Ailie received was through her community.
“I saw a community psychiatric nurse as well. She was probably more helpful than my psychiatrist or family doctor. In fact, she was. I got lots of support from them but most of my support came from peers. The doctors can prescribe medications and whatever but that’s only a small part of it. The biggest thing looking back that’s helped me the most is peers. I wouldn’t be where I am now without that.”
One question Ailie often gets asked is: would life have been better without bipolar disorder? Her response:
“Absolutely not. I’ve gained so much. I really have. I just believe it’s all part of my life plan. We all have our challenges, and this happens to be one of mine. To be honest, yes there has been a lot of losses, significant losses, but there have been a lot of gains as well.”
March 30 marks World Bipolar Day. We can all do our part in opening the discussion about bipolar disorder to reduce stigma associated with the illness. Because Ailie and the millions of others living with the illness are so much more than their diagnosis.