In 2019, more than 40 million people were living with bipolar disorder, according to a
Lovato was one of them. Fans knew that. But, though Lovato first discussed having bipolar in 2011, her latest comments may come as a surprise given the stigma around mental health (particularly more than a decade ago): The diagnosis brought relief.
“I was so relieved that I had finally had a diagnosis,” Lovato said. “I had spent so many years struggling, and I didn’t know why I was a certain way in dealing with depression at such extreme lows when I seemingly had the world in front of me just ripe with opportunities.”
But Gonzalez, who is also the founding director of the Stony Brook University Mind-Body Clinical Research Center at the Renaissance School of Medicine, says this relief is common among people who receive a mental health diagnosis like bipolar.
“When you are experiencing distress and discourse in your life, it can be very disorienting and jarring,” Gonzalez says. “People can question what is going on with them. It can be confusing and scary. To have a professional say, ‘Based on the symptoms and the experiences you are reporting, it sounds like this is what you are struggling with,’ can be very freeing for an individual. Now, they have some answers.”
The word “bipolar” can get misused in everyday conversations to describe certain behaviors.
“Sometimes, people will misuse the diagnosis and throw around the term colloquially, like, ‘Oh, that person is bipolar,’” says Gonzalez. “People typically do that when folks have shifts in mood or may change what they are saying or their emotional responses shift. I would caution folks from using these terms loosely because there are people who are really struggling and suffering with their mental health, and these diagnostic terms do mean something…you never know who may be experiencing this level of distress.”
The level of distress — and the way it affects daily life and relationships — is important.
Lovato delved into her experiences.
“I remember being 15 years old on a tour bus and watching fans follow my bus with posters and trying to get me to wave outside the window. And all I could do was just sit there and cry,” Lovato continued. “And I remember being in the back of my tour bus watching my fans and crying and being like, ‘Why am I so unhappy?’”
Now, because of people like Lovato, people know of at least one person — and the keyword is a person — who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Gonzalez notes that seeing a person’s face and putting a name to the diagnosis can raise awareness and prompt more empathy.
Bipolar disorder is often misunderstood in part because of the colloquial use of the term.
“Bipolar is thought of in relation to euphoric manias, but the highs are disabling, and the lows of depression that often follow can be even more devastating,” says Dr. David Merrill, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in California.
Khan also notes that bipolar can present on a spectrum:
“Someone with bipolar I can experience at least one manic episode, while someone with bipolar II can experience a less intense hypomanic episode,” Khan explains. “People with cyclothymia will experience rapid cycling between hypomanic and depressive symptoms. Substance use can induce or exacerbate a bipolar state, as can a general medical condition that may be comorbid and improperly treated.”
Experts say that Lovato’s comments can bring awareness, but her experiences — however relatable they may be — is not a substitute for a diagnosis.
“A proper diagnosis allows for prescribing of the right medications, therapies, and social support elements,” says Merrill. “Bipolar patients can have co-occurring personality or substance use disorders that need different types of treatments.”
Merrill advises people find a healthcare provider, such as a board-certified psychiatrist, which is a physician with special training in psychiatry.
There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but experts say it can be managed with the correct treatment, namely medications and psychotherapy.
“We know from research and clinical trials that there are treatments that work and can help people get better,” says Gonzalez. “It’s really important to speak with a psychologist and psychiatrist to learn more about what is the best course of treatment.”
For instance, a
But Gonzalez says people can find it challenging to find one-on-one care right now as those providers have long waitlists for new patients or have stopped accepting them.
He says group therapy can be effective, too. The ones they run where he works with Stony Brook Medicine utilize CBT techniques.
“It can be really hard to get into care at present, so looking at other treatment options is important,” he says. “I mention this to encourage people to look outside of the idea that ‘I need a 1-to-1 therapist to help with my problems.’ There may be other support available.”
And that’s the biggest takeaway the mental health professionals Healthline spoke with want people to glean from Lovato’s comments: You’re not alone.
“As a society, mental health problems are really being spotlighted now because a lot of people are struggling post-COVID,” says Gonzalez. “Speaking up about this during this time when mental health challenges are on the rise is important.”
And experts say there’s no shame in a diagnosis – so give yourself and others grace.
“No one chooses to suffer from bipolar disorder — we now know that mental health disorders are medical illnesses that include genetic predispositions, environmental life stressors, and need comprehensive treatments,” says Merrill.