Debunking the myths and misconceptions about bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder has often been discounted with myths and misconceptions. Some dismiss it as mere misbehaviour, others wrongly think it only affects adults, and there are those who attribute it to witchcraft or evil spirits.

A 2021 study by Alexander Moreira-Almeida et al. revealed that in Africa, many people attribute mental illnesses to curses, witchcraft, demon possession, or punishment for sins committed by the patient, their family, or community.

On social media platforms, misconceptions about bipolar disorder persist, with some posts suggesting it is either a curse or caused by spirits.

In this explainer, Fact-Check Ghana explains bipolar disorder, its misconceptions, and the ways to treat it.

What is bipolar?

Previously known as manic-depressive illness or manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration. 

People with bipolar disorder, according to the American PsychiatJric Association, experience intense mood swings that typically occur during distinct periods of days to weeks, called mood episodes, which often disrupt day-to-day activities. 

Is bipolar spiritual or associated with witchcraft?

In May 2022, a Ghanaian prophet, Eagle Prophet, claimed that Ghanaian media personality, Nana Abena Korkor Addo, known widely as Abena Korkor who has publicly confirmed her diagnosis of bipolar, is not suffering from the mental illness. Rather, he said she was possessed by an evil spirit. 

Also, a video posted on Instagram, in May 2022, showed another well-known prophet, known in public space as Kumchacha offering prayers for Abena Korkor to cast out the demons who may be responsible for her meltdown or relapses.  

Nana Abena Korkor Addo

In our part of the world, people have strong beliefs in the supernatural and often attribute things they cannot explain to the supernatural. As a result, some attribute bipolar to witchcraft or believe the disorder is caused by spirits.  In some cases, persons suffering from the disorder are taken to witch camps, chained, (sometimes assaulted) and offered special prayers to cast out the demons believed to be responsible for the disorder. 

In certain African countries like Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana, prevalent beliefs about child and adolescent mental health problems are often attributed to spiritual causes, including witchcraft and curses. Studies from these regions show that a significant majority of caregivers link mental illnesses to supernatural factors, highlighting the widespread influence of spiritual explanations for mental health conditions in these communities.

However, there is substantial evidence to prove that bipolar is more of a mental health disorder than the doing of spirits.

Is bipolar a curse?

No, bipolar is not a curse. It is a mental health condition.

A study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University revealed that participants identified different types of curses which they believe may lead to mental illness.  Curses, often motivated by retaliation, envy, or spite, have been believed to cause mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. Some people attribute these conditions to generational curses, suggesting that they can be passed down through several generations, originating from ancestors who were cursed.

However, there is no substantial evidence or science to prove that bipolar is either a curse, is associated with witchcraft or is caused by spirits. 

What’s the science? 

A Hindawi-published study explored the link between witchcraft accusations and mental health disorders, specifically depression. The research revealed that individuals experiencing depression might exhibit behaviours like hallucinations, irrational thoughts, and anxiety, which can lead to accusations of witchcraft in communities where such beliefs persist.

Bipolar patients can sometimes experience dissociative disorders, which involve a disconnection from reality, including thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. A 2019 study in the European Research Journal found that approximately 35% of individuals with bipolar disorder frequently had co-occurring dissociative disorders, leading to involuntary detachment from reality and distorted perceptions of self and surroundings.

Is bipolar just an excuse for bad behaviour?

No, bipolar disorder is not just an excuse for bad behaviour. It is a serious mental health condition characterized by extreme mood swings, including episodes of mania and depression. These mood swings are beyond the person’s control and significantly impact their daily life, relationships, and overall well-being. Bipolar disorder is a legitimate medical condition that requires proper diagnosis and treatment by mental health professionals. It is essential to approach mental health issues with empathy, understanding, and support, rather than dismissing them as excuses for behavior. 

Symptoms of Bipolar

People with bipolar may show symptoms including feeling extremely cheerful, and restless, having rapid thoughts, talking quickly and more than usual, feeling energised with little sleep or not feeling tired despite lack of sleep, and engaging in risky behaviours like excessive spending, reckless driving, or substance abuse. 

Other symptoms include feeling overwhelmingly sad or hopeless, losing interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, having low energy and feeling tired most of the time.

Data on persons living with Bipolar in Ghana 

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 40 million people live with Bipolar globally. Similarly, a report published in January 2022 indicates that there are about 157,543 people with bipolar in Ghana. According to the report: 83,354 are females and 74,189 are males. 

When is Bipolar often detected?

Bipolar disorder is frequently identified during adolescence because the hormonal fluctuations, life transitions, and behavioural changes that occur during this period often bring out the distinct mood swings and symptoms associated with the disorder. However, It can also be detected during early adulthood and sometimes, bipolar symptoms can manifest itself in children. 

What causes Bipolar?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is not known; however, some key factors have been identified as potential contributors to the development of bipolar disorder which include: genetics or hereditary patterns, the structure and operation of the brains of individuals, traumatic life events, chronic stress, or major life changes. Additionally, substance abuse,  sleep disturbances, some medication as well as some medical conditions can also trigger the disorder. 

Types of Bipolar

There are three types of bipolar disorders; Bipolar I disorder, Bipolar II disorder and cyclothymic disorder. 

Bipolar disorder I is associated with extreme excitement, energy, or euphoria known as mania, as well as persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable, associated with depression. 

Similarly, people with Bipolar II also experience depressive episodes where they feel very sad, and hopeless, and have low energy. These episodes can be quite severe. However, instead of a full-blown mania like in Bipolar I, Bipolar II involves what’s called “hypomania,” which is a less severe form of mania.

Cyclothymic disorder is milder and less severe than the two types above.  This type is still associated with mood swings, but they’re not as extreme as in Bipolar disorder. 

Treatment and how to handle persons with bipolar disorder

Bipolar can be treated with a combination of therapies and medications 

-Apart from medication, psychotherapy, family-focused therapy, lifestyle management, etc. are all ways of managing the condition. 

– Seeking professional help can also greatly aid in effectively managing this condition.

– Additionally, people living with bipolar disorder may be reluctant to acknowledge their condition, and as such, they need to be encouraged to consult a mental health expert to get treated. 

With appropriate treatment, support, and coping strategies, individuals living with bipolar disorder can lead fulfilling lives. 

The writer of this report, Jessie Ola-Morris, is a fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). 

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