Bipolar Disorder – To Tell or Not to Tell


Just by the very nature of the work that I do, working with people who have bipolar disorder and their supporters, people talk to me about all kinds of things related to bipolar disorder.

Like how to get their loved ones to take their medications, or how to get their loved ones to seek treatment, and that kind of thing.

But one thing they ask me about as well is whether they should tell people that their loved one has bipolar disorder or not. I tell people that it is a personal decision whether to tell people or not, as there are advantages and disadvantages to telling or not telling.

I recently read a book by Hilary Smith called “Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask.” It was a really good book written by a young author with bipolar disorder.

In the book, she discusses whether or not you should tell people you have bipolar disorder.

I like the way she puts it. She says: “Being open and well-informed about bipolar yourself will make it much easier for your friends and family to be open and well-informed too. If they have pre-conceptions of or biases against mental illness, talking about it will help them realize where and how they’re wrong.”

That’s one thing we agree upon – being well-informed yourself. That’s one thing I’m always telling people, and why I’ve written so many courses teaching people all about bipolar disorder.

I think it’s important to have the right information and to be well-informed. That way you know how to inform other people, should you decide to tell them. You will have the right answers to

whatever they might ask you.

Hilary goes on to say: “You can’t force people to understand, but you can leave the door open.”

I really like that line, because it addresses the stigma that still comes against bipolar disorder.

We can’t help that some people, usually uninformed people, still hold a stigma against people with a mental illness in general, and bipolar disorder specifically. Unfortunately, it’s up to us to

educate them (should you decide to).

You can’t make them understand, like Hilary says, but you can arm them with the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

Here’s what Hilary says about telling the people you care most about: “Getting diagnosed with bipolar is a great opportunity to become a more open person, a more honest person, a more caring person. Having all these people care about you makes you realize how much you value them – and how much you can return their love. If you can be open about bipolar, you can be

open about other touchy things.”

She talks about telling them about having bipolar as a sign of your love for them. Undoubtedly, they already know that something is wrong anyway. They’ve probably already noticed different behavior in you or your loved one. Perhaps even commented on the mood swings.

Of course, it is still your decision whether you tell them about having bipolar disorder, but honesty is usually the best policy, and you don’t have to worry about hiding things any more.

Your Friend,


  1. I have always been open and honest about having bipolar…it’s easier to apologize if the people you love and care about understand the illness.

    I look at the illness the same way an alcoholic or drag addict looks at their addiction. If you can accept the forgivenss of their actions, why can you not forgive mine.

    What others think about me does not really matter because it is only my friends/family members that are close to me that understand and think I am a wonderful unique person and love me for who I really am!

  2. I like this post. I am 61 years old and was diagnosed manic depressive in 1972. I can not really expand on these clearly thought out ideas, but I have a peeve about the phrase “mental illness”. We have heart disease, kidney disease, Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lyme disease, Cronn’s disease, Graves disease, etc. Hey, some people have brain disease. The brain is an organ. Why must we call it bi-polar ‘disorder’ ????

    When I hear people say “That guy is mental” or “You are mental” it makes me want to snap.

  3. My son has endured five years of marriage counselling and has finally decided to leave his wife. His finances are in a mess. It could take a life time to undo but he is doing his best. He never stopped working. He may get layed off after Christmas but maybe not. He will be OK and is prepared either way. He is at the top of the company pay scale and will figure out what to do. Because of the manic depression/bi polar situation I can’t really help him financially. There isn’t enough money in the world to stop the debt increases from possible episodes. Bankruptcy is staring him in the face but he may make too much money to declare bankruptcy. His home has lost it’value from
    refinancing over the years. Payment is way too heavy.
    His taxes are in arrears and he is paying a tax atty. to straighten that out. The pressure is constant.Everything he tries to do is more difficult and I of course want to help way beyond my ability to
    help. Any suggestions?

  4. First,I want to say that I totally agree with John’s comment on how ignorant, uneducated people refer to those suffering from bipolar disorder as being “mental” or “crazy”…this really upsets me as well.
    I have been upfront and honest with close friends and loved ones with my condition. Mostly, it has been well-received and accepted, but the odd time, when I am get upset for a good reason for example, and they wonder out loud if “my bipolar is acting up again”…well, that upsets me too. Please don’t assume that every mood we have, either good or not-so-good, is governed by our bipolar disorder. ESPECIALLY if we are taking medication, which I’m sure most of us are. Please just accept that we are human too, and are thus subject to human feelings and vulnerabilites just like everyone else.
    To those who are ignorant of what bipolar disorder really is…if someone discloses to you that they have bipolar disorder, please take some time to google it and/or get a book on it…to learn at least the basics about what it entails, if only out of courtesy to the person who had the courage to disclose to you. It is NOT easy to tell people something like that. Sometimes I feel it’s like I’m telling people that I’m a leper…and unfortunately some people never will totally “get” it. Still, I feel it is worth letting those who are close to you know what’s happening with you. If they are true friends, they will understand and it can only strengthen your friendship. If it alienates them, well obviously they weren’t as close or true as you thought.
    Merry Christmas and God Bless all of us who are living with bipolar disorder, and may their loved ones come to a better understanding of our condition in 2011!!!

  5. Even with the increasing awareness of BP it is very important to explain that your loved one has this disease. The average person will take everything at face value when interfacing with an indiviual. Sudden mood changes or irratibility can jepedize any relationship without this knowledge. Better to let people know than provide some other excuse that they may not accept.

  6. i’ve been told that bi polar is a physical illness and should not be classified as a mental illness.

  7. I live with this all the time and thought I could advocate for myself and my children even through divorce courts. WRONGO- as the Grinch would say. I ended up in lockdown while my spouse snuck in our taxes for me to sign, saying that if I didn’t I’d lose the kids. After release, I went to try to find an advocate – did everything wrong there too. My entire family including my spouse has some form of the disease-coupled with Asperger’s Syndrome in several cases. I gave up the house and rsidential custody to syudy advocacy law. Hopefully, I will be able to help others when armed with the right information, and good working knowlege of the legal system. As you said, Bipolar illness is not an excuse for bad behavior, but we need appropriate stategies to cope with it. Kicking your spouse until she is bruised does not constitute a “signal” that it’s time to leave a gathering.

  8. My fiancee is bi-polar. When my parents met him, they loved him. When they found out about his illness (he showed up at their house to visit during a manic episode),my mother called me and told me to dump him. Despite trying to explain the disease to them and share the information I’d researched or experienced with him myself, they refused to let go of their preconcieved notions. Now, unfortunatly, I’ve dumped them and no longer have a relationship with them. Even with information, some people are so ignorant, or so afraid, or so stuck, that it is impossible to educate them. Their choice, not mine, and I am happy with my stance. I support him 100% and will not allow anyone to tell me that I shouldn’t love him because of this illness.

  9. This is a wonderful letter, David, one that we should all read and digest. The insensitivities on the part of many are hard to swallow, as they go about their “normal” lives. In our family we are shouting about it to the rooftops, as we so much want everyone to understand and get rid of the stigma. It’s a physical illness as are thyroid, or diabetes, etc.We have done a lot of educating through our family, and our daughter, who is bipolar, is extremely learned and informed about it. She has been spokesperson for clients of our extremely fine mental health and addiction hospital, and has heightened awareness in many arenas. This book by Hilary Smith sounds wonderful, and we’ll be sure to get it. David, your own material is so very excellent! Thank you so much for getting us over our original heartbreak. Leaving the door open to others is a fine idea – let’s hope they walk through it and try to learn, as they would with any other illness. We have, and now we carry the torch!

  10. Yes, it is a personal decision, and I think the circumstances should come into consideration when deciding to reveal ones health issues. Most people don’t go around telling personal things to everyone they meet. There are many people who have disorders of one kind or another, and most of these people handle their conditions without informing anyone other than those closest to them.

    Many people take medications for all kinds of illnesses, diseases, disorders, conditions, whatever they are cursed with. But unless a person is personally affected by another person, most of us are not well informed about other people’s problems.

    I agree there needs to be more public awareness about mental health issues just as there needs to be more awareness about a lot of things. With this in mind I would just like to say that if a person with bipolar wants to inform someone about their condition, I think they should also do their best to explain what it is and not just tell you that they have it. It took me over a year of investigation in my spare time to learn about bipolar after meeting someone who has it. I persued this investigation because the person was very strange and I did not understand at the time that there is more to handling the condition of bipolar than just taking medication.

    Had I known more about it upon meeting this person I would have been better able to deal with the person. The thing that I learned and am now aware of is that people with bipolar are unstable, unpredictable, and they often make things up. Their minds are twisted and I know that they suffer, but they should tell these things to people they meet to warn others of what they are dealing with.

  11. This disease does not come with compassion, sympathy or empathy, only stigma, fear, and preconceptions. I don’t tell anyone. I worked too hard at my education to hear people call me mentally ill.

  12. I was in a job and told everyone that I had BP it was as if I had a contagous decease now I am not that open I know what I am but I do not forgt my medication. I work in the medical field is so funny at times when individuals say some kind of coment like he is mental you do not know what is like, I smile and say yes I do.Humor is what gets me through the day and yes family support sistem.Exersice be proactive go to your councelor.And if you breack down it is ok to get yourself up again forgive yourself.


  14. Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
    There is a time and place for most things, event openness and honesty. One must first learn to manage the condition, before one can understand the right time and right way to disclose this unique condition. A perfect stranger may unload his troubles to you while waiting for the bus, but this is not necessarily a sign of someone who is doing a good job of managing. Sometimes the people who have known you the longest, even family and friends, can be the ones who are the least tolerant, compassionate, empathetic or patient. You can never really tell if disclosing your condition will be greeted with understanding or condemnation. I personally prefer to be honest, but I am usually a little guarded when revealing such sensitive information. You might consider qualifying the the topic before showing your hand. An unwarranted declaration of mental affectation can be an unwelcome and quite damaging approach. There may be those who would benefit from the information, but one should be careful to make sure that the audience is receptive and genuinely interested. This condition that we speak of takes on many different faces, and they are not all pretty. It can be quite shocking to say that you are afflicted with a debilitating illness that can generate extreme mood swings and unstable behavior. On the other hand, for someone who knows about the condition or knows someone else who is dealing with it, it can be quite assuring to share your your experience with medication and how long you have been episode free. Having been on lithium religiously for nearly 25 years, and having been relatively stable and episode free for 23 years, I might liken myself to an alcoholic who has been sober for more than two decades, and I have been sober for over two decades. One should not view it as being victimized by a horrible disability. It is a unique condition that has both benefits and side effects. If not managed carefully it can be extremely destructive. Alternatively, there are certain aspects to the condition that, if harnessed properly, might be considered a “Gift.” It is up to each individual to learn how to focus on the good and make the most of it. If one can find a way to do that, the story of being bipolar might have a more positive note. Once the patient has learned to see it this way, that individual might learn to let go of the notion of being “Cursed” and find a way to steer their life in a better direction. It may take you many years to come to understand the finer points of living with the condition. Don’t expect anyone to be able to understand it all based on a short conversation. If people are really interested, they may prove it through their inquisitiveness and curiosity. You should beware that most people are less aware of the condition and may exhibit a prejudiced reaction to the your disclosure of illness. Share this personal information with discretion. By all means, remember that judgement is impaired during extreme mood swings and unstable behavior can have long lasting consequences. Hopefully you will learn to understand why this should be a very compelling reason for adhering to the medication as prescribed, and for continued counseling with a qualified professional.

  15. I recently was diagnosed with bipolar disorder orginally manic depression. I guess the same thing. Does anyone know how I can get my hands on a mood diary to track my ups and downs. I have just started medications and hopefully they will return me to society. thank you

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