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Bipolar Disorder: Two-Sided Trouble

The public's understanding of bipolar disorder is often flawed, especially when it hits celebrities.

The Anatomy of Inner Turmoil continued...

The stigma attached to psychiatric illness doesn't help either. Many people think only violent and insane-acting individuals could possibly have a mental disorder. Though it is true that mania could cause someone to become more aggressive and do illegal things, most of the time, people with serious psychiatric problems end up to be victims of crime.

"They are not as good at defending themselves because they tend to be loners, and vulnerable," says Robert Hirschfeld, MD, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He says many tend not to know what manic depressives go through unless they experience the disorder themselves, or know someone close to them who is suffering.

Otherwise, most people think sufferers can 'pull it together,' when that's not usually the case, says David Dunner, MD, director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression at the University of Washington in Seattle. He explains that mental illness isn't usually viewed in the same vein as the flu, pneumonia, heart disease, or broken bones. Yet, he says, "The same kinds of physical things are wrong when someone has depression or a manic episode."

Medical experts aren't yet certain of the exact cause of bipolar disorder, but a biological cause is the prime suspect since it seems to run in families. APA figures indicate that 80% to 90% of individuals with manic depression have a relative with either depression or bipolar disorder, a rate 10 to 20 times higher than in the general population.

A person's environment can also contribute to the disease, says Hirschfeld, pointing to both early and current experiences as possible factors.

Silent Suffering, Public Misunderstanding

Spector and Robbins' woes with manic depression may both have played out on the national stage, but based on reactions of shock to their plight, it seems their recent emotional anguish went relatively unnoticed or were ignored until it was too late.

The same thing can happen to ordinary citizens, testifies Dan Gunter, who has endured bipolar disorder for nearly a decade. The Opelika, Ala., resident says before he was accurately diagnosed with the illness, he cycled from mania to depression to the point that he hurt many people close to him and quit a good-paying healthcare job.

When he first sought help, doctors thought he had depression and prescribed him antidepressants. The drugs, he said, made his manic episodes worse.

Once the bipolar disorder was correctly identified and he was able to take the right medication, however, Gunter says his life improved dramatically. Now he not only works as an announcer for a group of radio stations, he has started his own coaching business -- helping other people with manic depression.

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