Bipolar disorder is not a character flaw: Psychiatrist

When television producer Adam Boland spoke out recently about having bipolar disorder, the nation got a glimpse into what it was like to suffer from the debilitating mood disorder.

But as one psychiatrist told SBS, people who have bipolar are still stigmatised and misunderstood.

“This is not a character flaw, I think that’s how it’s been interpreted in the past – that their behaviour is due to a weakness or their immaturity,” said Professor Phil Mitchell, Head of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales.

“There’s still a lot of stigma attached to having bipolar disorder.”

Professor Mitchell said bipolar is a real condition that is no different to having diabetes or cancer.

“There’s no doubt that this is an illness that affects the brain… this is not the person’s will, they’re not manipulating others or making life difficult for others. This is a real condition that is no different to any other medical conditions.”Altered State

The day after Boland spoke out about having bipolar, Sunrise hosts David Koch and Sam Armatage were accused of making snide remarks about his condition live on air.

Koch had dismissed claims that he was getting replaced before adding that “saner heads prevailed.”

“I’ve been getting emails from people last night and on Twitter saying ‘are you going to be sacked from the show?'” Koch said. “Well no, it was 2011 from a bloke who’d moved on and saner heads prevailed.”

The hosts have since apologised for their “poor choice of words” after a huge online backlash.

It’s just one of many examples why greater awareness of bipolar disorder is perhaps needed.

The more the public understand it, the more the stigma will reduce,” said Professor Mitchell, who is also a psychiatrist at The Black Dog Institute.

“People with bipolar are hit with a double whammy – they’re dealing with a condition that’s making them do things and think things that are different to their normal selves.

“And at the same time, they’re dealing with the stigma of having a serious mental illness like bipolar which is poorly understood which leads to discrimination in the workplace and in relationships.”

Supporting family members or friends with the disorder can be difficult but Professor Mitchell said people need to “hang in there.”

“If you have a friend or family with bipolar, recognise that they’re going to need support as much as if they were suffering from a serious infection, cancer, heart disease.

“Part of the difficulties for people with bipolar is they often feel isolated from others. Others don’t want to be with them, they feel uncomfortable.

“It’s important to hang in there. And just to recgonise that my friend or my loved one is going through something that is quite distinct from their normal selves.”

Full interview: Psychiatrist Professor Phil Mitchell on World Bipolar Day

This article first appeard on ‘SBS News’ on 30 March 2014.

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