Bipolar Disorder: Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Over the past few years there has been an increase in the public discussion of mental health due to the increasing stressors in the world. This is such a positive shift towards awareness of mental health needs and challenges. One important aspect of this conversation is the distinction between mental health and mental illness. These terms are not interchangeable, and understanding the definitions of both and their relationship is important for anyone seeking treatment.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition of mental health: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

The CDC definition of mental illness: ‘“conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior.” These can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.’

Another way to put it is:

Mental illness is to mental health 

what physical illness is to physical health.

Physical Illness

There are different ways that our bodies can become physically ill, some examples are:

  • You can contract a virus or disease that is temporary and can be healed over time, sometimes requiring outside intervention–like contracting the flu or a sinus infection.
  • You can develop a disease that may have some genetic predisposition but was brought on by neglected health–like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
  • You can experience physical trauma that causes damage–like a broken leg.
  • You can be born with or develop a disorder that causes the body to need external assistance–like type one diabetes.

While some illnesses may be the result of negligence or poor personal care, most people acknowledge the value and importance of professional intervention in the care and treatment of these physical ailments. In general physical illness and disorder is not stigmatized and people will seek treatment for their illnesses or injuries.

Mental Illness

Unfortunately the same is not always true for mental illnesses. Our society has made great progress towards acknowledgement and acceptance of mental illness, but there are still stigmas that cause people to resist diagnosis and treatment. The result is unnecessary suffering.

Mental illnesses, according to the CDC website, are among the most common health conditions in the United States.

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Mental illness has a broad range of causes and diagnoses, just like physical illness. 

  • Some people can have a temporary illness brought on by environmental factors or as a companion with physical illness. 
  • Some may neglect their mental health and suffer a breakdown or the onset of chronic issues like anxiety or depression.
  • Others may experience severe trauma that causes emotional or mental damage resulting in mental illness.
  • Some people are born with a genetic predisposition to developing a mental illness.

Years ago I was struggling with accepting my diagnosis and need for treatment. My psychiatrist at the time asked me if I would feel the same if I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I said no, of course not. Diabetes is a real, very serious disorder that if not treated could result in serious illness and even death. The doctor then told me that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was no different. 

He said that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in my brain that, if not treated, will continue to get worse and cause me to get more ill, and possibly even die. He told me that with proper treatment, however, I can live a healthy, balanced life, just like someone with diabetes who treats their disorder regularly.

This comparison shifted my thinking about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and helped me to focus on treatment and learning the tools necessary to live well with bipolar. To learn more about accepting your diagnosis see Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief.

Over the years I have discovered that there are many tools that are necessary to properly treat my bipolar disorder. As I have learned each new piece it has helped me to live a healthier, more balanced and more productive life.

Medication and Supplementation

This one is the most obvious, but also one of the most difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that there is not an exact science to identify which medication or combination of medications will be right for each person. I used to say that my doctor was playing “guess and check” with my meds to try and find the right ones. 

For me, finding medications that worked never happened. I really wanted to get well, and I tried everything my doctors prescribed. But I  struggled with terrible side-effects and was often not able to tolerate a therapeutic dose of the medication. 

Thankfully after over a decade of struggling and searching my doctor and I found a nonprofit that had developed a supplement specifically for people with bipolar disorder. After my doctor reviewed the studies that had been done on the supplements he worked with me to transition me to them and they worked! 

A few months after I transitioned to the supplements I woke up one morning and felt like I was truly awake for the first time in over a decade. To learn more about my experience with medication and supplements see my post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work.

The struggle to find the right combination of medication and/or supplements can feel discouraging at times, but most people with bipolar disorder need something to balance out the chemicals in their brains. Thankfully there are any number of options to help doctors in the process of discovering what each patient needs to get balanced. Additionally there are a growing number of practitioners that are discovering the benefits of micronutrients in the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Counseling and Therapy

This is another tool that may seem obvious but many people, like myself, resist going to counseling. For me, it was the result of stigmas and a misunderstanding of what counseling was. Growing up I had heard a relative frequently say, “my therapist said this” or “my therapist said that” and I remember thinking “I will never let someone else tell me what to think.” Unfortunately the result was that when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder I said I was willing to take medication, but I refused to go to counseling. 

Over the years, however, I discovered that counseling is an essential tool to help someone with bipolar disorder learn how to live well. When you have bipolar disorder you frequently see the world through a distorted lens and can develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy boundaries and may have unhealed trauma. All of these can continue to cause mood cycles, even after the medication or supplements are correct. To learn more about counseling see my post Bipolar Disorder: Counseling is Essential.

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

An especially valuable tool for proactively managing your bipolar disorder is a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you take responsibility for managing your mood cycles more effectively, rather than reactively just suffering through them. 

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Emergency Response Team
  • Develop an Early Warning System
  • Determine your Auxiliary Power
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System

Developing this plan helps you proactively care for your mood cycles in a way that lessens their impact on you and your family and shortens the duration of the cycle. To get a free guide to creating your own Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Self-care Routine

Developing a self-care routine that you do daily to keep your brain and body healthy and balanced is also essential. Some important tools in your self-care tool box are:

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise

To learn more about self-care see my post Bipolar Disorder: Self-care.

You Have a Choice

Years ago I had a friend whose father developed type 2 diabetes. His doctors gave him strict instructions about how he needed to care for himself in order to keep himself healthy. He was told he could live a long, healthy life if he was willing to follow the care instructions given to him by his doctor. Unfortunately he didn’t listen. He liked the habits he had that were against the doctor's orders and he lost his legs, his eyesight, and ultimately his life.

Bipolar disorder is a treatable mental illness. It isn’t necessary to suffer indefinitely, being at the mercy of your mood cycles and doing damage to your life and relationships. It is not easy, but it is absolutely possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life if you are willing to do the work necessary to learn each of the tools. There is hope and there is help!

If you are a mom with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your journey to live well join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.