June 18, 2014

Mental Illness Q&A: Bipolar Family Members & Does Society Care?


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Dear Elephants,

Welcome to this week’s Mental Illness Q&A! My name is Gabe Howard and I am a man living with severe bipolar and anxiety disorders. To submit questions of your own, please email me at [email protected]. Questions that are selected will always remain anonymous. I enjoy reading your thoughts in the comments section. Be respectful, but don’t be shy!

Dear Gabe, 

My mom was just diagnosed as bipolar.

The doctor said it’s severe, but I don’t get it. How could she not know she is “severely” mentally ill?

Mommy’s Girl

Dear Mommy’s Girl,

The major symptom of bipolar disorder is a swing between an extremely high mood (mania) and an extremely low mood (depression). For example, your mother might go from very sad to very happy.

Most people lack education and understanding when it comes to bipolar disorder. From your mother’s perspective, she might not have seen being “sad” or “happy” as symptoms. It’s possible that she just saw them as normal parts of her personality. (Read this article for more information about bipolar disorder.)

To give you an analogy not related to mental health, many people have moles on their bodies. Most of these are benign, but some of them are cancerous. In other words, many people are walking around right now with a serious disease that has gone undetected, even though in many cases it can literally be seen, simply because they don’t know what a cancerous mole looks like.

Understanding the difference between moods, feelings, thoughts that are “normal” and ones that are not goes a long way to determining if something is or isn’t wrong.

Understanding the symptoms of any illness is the key to deciding to seek help. I obviously can’t speak for your mother, but many people aren’t diagnosed with severe mental illness until they reach a crisis point. A mental health crisis can be as simple as losing a job due to not being able to get out of bed or as critical as a suicide attempt.

For additional insight into why your mother may not have known she was mentally ill, keep reading.


Dear Gabe, 

I have a family history of mental illness. I have watched family members struggle to get care and be healthy. I don’t understand why they are left to struggle alone. I keep asking myself why our society doesn’t seem to care.

Needing to Understand

Dear Needing to Understand,

It is impossible to answer a question about the feelings of an entire country. I can’t figure out why society worships celebrities but isn’t paying attention to mental illness.

The truth is that many people do care about people living with mental illness. I care, you care and the people battling a mental illness care the most. We have pockets of people all over the country who care deeply.

It is human nature to think there are only two sides to an issue. But there are almost always far more than just two sides. In the case of mental health, two factions may agree on the ultimate desired outcome, but disagree strongly on how to achieve it.

The side I try to focus on isn’t the one that doesn’t care and I don’t need to focus on the side that does. The majority of people just don’t know. The limited knowledge they have about mental illness doesn’t give them enough information to choose any side. They are unaware of the suffering, the loss of dignity, the lack of resources, and the hope that is being lost daily.

It isn’t that they don’t care; it is that they are unaware.

I was born in 1976 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002. Assuming that I can’t be held accountable for not understanding mental illness when I was a minor, then I spent about seven years in the “unaware” category.

My ignorance on the subject was so great that my failure to act on behalf of persons living with mental illness almost made me a casualty. Two hours before going to the emergency room for suicidal ideation, delusions and crippling depression, I steadfastly stood my ground and declared, “I do not need to go to a hospital. I am not sick. Only sick people go to hospitals.”

I didn’t just think I was right when I said those words; I knew I was right. Nothing in all my years gave me a shred of understanding of what was happening. At that moment, I had a greater understanding of nuclear physics than a disease I had been unknowingly battling my entire life.

Hearing about mental illness, knowing it exists and seeing portrayals on television and in the media isn’t the same as understanding it. We are all aware of love, but until we fall in love, we don’t understand it. And even then, some of us understand more than others.

Our society lacks education, understanding, and empathy about mental illness. The knowledge about mental illness and the people who live with it and suffer from it is almost nonexistent in the minds of the majority. Misconceptions outweigh facts and those misconceptions often lead to fear.

Society will help people with mental illness; but first, they need to understand our struggle.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr, Simon James/Flickr

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