World Bipolar Day 2022: the highs and lows of mental illness

Bipolar opposites—finding the creativity between the lows and highs of bipolar disorder. Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree, Adobe Stock.
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Today is a prompt to celebrate creativity and destigmatise disorders. Dave Nguyen reports on World Bipolar Day 2022.

World Bipolar Day aims to reduce the stigma around bipolar disorder and to celebrate the creativity of those affected by it.

Swinburne University Professor of Psychology Greg Murray says celebrating World Bipolar Day – recognised today, March 30 – helps people with the illness be more widely accepted, and promotes the celebration of the creative benefits associated with the condition.

“People are really aware of illnesses like depression and anxiety and, hopefully, that is reducing stigma around it,” says Prof Murray.

  • To listen to the full interview with Professor Murray, check out The Standard’s current affairs podcast, The Wind Down—Episode 32.

“The way we characterise this disorder (bipolar), is to put them in the mix with humanity. We’re all in this together … that’s a way of destigmatising the illness.”

Despite only 1-2 per cent of the population warranting a diagnosis of bipolar among eminently creative people, 10 per cent were thought to have the disorder.

Prof Murray says there has been “quite a bit” of research conducted into the link between bipolar disorder and creativity.

People who are objectively creative are five to 10 times more likely to have bipolar.

“It’s a serious mental illness, but it is associated with things people like.”

World Bipolar Day 2022: the highs and lows of mental illness
The Starry Night (1889) oil on canvas, was painted during van Gogh’s stay at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum. Credit: vangoghgallery.com

While bipolar disorder can damage a person’s quality of life, the perceived benefit of a higher rate of creativity is why the international date of recognition was assigned to Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s birthday, March 30.

Believed to have had bipolar, van Gogh is still celebrated for his creative genius more than 130 years after his death.

Prof Murray says a diagnosis of bipolar for Van Gogh was widely accepted. “He had real problems with substance abuse … problems with lifestyle … he also had long-standing problems with relationships.”

A disorder marked by extremes

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by extreme shifts in mood. Prof Murray says the defining feature of bipolar disorder is that people suffer from two illnesses.

People with bipolar experience two pathological states. One is depression … but they also experience episodes of elevated mood, which we call mania.

He says people experiencing severe mania, also referred to as manic episodes, can seem out of place in public.

“They might be talking loudly, laughing or overexcited, appear threatening. In terms of their internal experience, they might be having psychotic experiences. Their thoughts will be racing, and their motivations will be different.”

“They’ll be taking risks like suicide, divorce … doing drugs that they might not normally do.”

Prof Murray says the struggles of living with bipolar are often called the “misery stats” and include an increased likelihood of suicide, higher divorce rates, lower employment and people veering off their developmental trajectory.

He recommends treating bipolar disorder with a combination of medication and psychological therapy.

The latter focuses on the psychological aspects of living with bipolar to minimise its impact, while the former can help to improve aspects of living with bipolar such as damage to identity, development and employment.