World Bipolar Day is observed on March 30 every year, which was artist Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday. Van Gogh was posthumously diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

World Bipolar Day is a day to focus on a serious mental/brain illness that afflicts 60 million people worldwide, even more because statistics for children are not counted. This includes 5.7 million American adults, or 2.6 percent of the adult population in the U.S., which may encompass more than 50,000 servicemembers [calculated by extrapolation] and 700,000 veterans, according to VA data; and that likely affects more than 80 million Americans — family members, friends and work colleagues. The swath of destruction is vast and tragic.

Bipolar disorder, left unchecked, can wreck marriages, families, careers, finances and friendships; it can lead to addictions, homelessness, prison and suicide.

Furthermore, many people with the disease are unaware they have it, often resist medical help, and even when they get help, are misdiagnosed. In my case, I was unaware for 11 years, then misdiagnosed as “fit for duty” three times when my symptoms were severe, and only diagnosed correctly after I had crashed into crippling depression and was virtually non-functional, making it easy to recognize.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, if treated, the disease can be brought under control and managed, and the afflicted person can live a healthy, happy, successful life.

I know and told my story a year ago in Task & Purpose.

As a bipolar survivor, I unknowingly served for more than a decade with serious, then acute bipolar, then battled for my life against the disease, spending weeks in a VA inpatient facility, and years undergoing a plethora of treatments, therapies and medications, including electroconvulsive therapy. After a punishing crisis and recovery, I stabilized and then rebuilt my shattered life into one of health, happiness and purpose. But I will always have bipolar in my brain. There is currently no cure. I am fighting a “forever war” to manage and contain it.

Here are my key take-aways on bipolar disorder:

Symptoms

  • Learn to recognize the basic symptoms of bipolar and other mental/brain disorders, and if you detect them, help the afflicted person get medical help, then follow up.
  • If you suspect that you or someone you care about might have bipolar — which is essentially the cycling between mania, or an elevated mood, with increased energy, grandiose thoughts and beliefs, rapid speech, speedy flights of ideas, recklessness, increased libido, agitation and more; and depression, or feeling down, hopeless, worthless, disinterested in previously enjoyable activities, excessively tired and more — go get medical help ASAP. It could be a matter of life and death. And this applies to other mental/brain disorders as well. [For more details on bipolar and other mental/brain disorders, see the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, by the American Psychiatric Association, 2013.]
  • Bipolar normally strikes between the ages of 18 and 25, although it also afflicts children as well as older adults, reaching into their 30′s, 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. My bipolar struck when I was a 47-year old colonel and brigade commander, which is known as “late onset bipolar.”

Normalizing discussion of bipolar

It is a physiological brain disorder, based largely on genetic predisposition. And like cancer, diabetes or heart disease, it isn’t due to a lack of character or willpower, or a moral failing. There is no stigma associated with these diseases and neither should there be for bipolar or other mental/brain disorders.

It’s okay to not be okay, and getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Mental/brain health should be viewed and treated with the same importance as physical health.

Those battling bipolar should view their recovery and new life with pride and be seen as survivors who are fighting a heroic cause, like women battling breast cancer.

Diagnosis

Counterintuitively, bipolar helped me and boosted my performance for years, until the up/down swings became too extreme and led to my removal from command and the end of my career. This is important to know because the positive attributes of many high performers — abundant energy, drive, enthusiasm, creativity, etc. — mask bipolar symptoms, making it difficult to detect, until it becomes extreme.

If you are diagnosed, embrace it, and be grateful that you know what the problem is, and you can go about recovering and managing it. And if you are misdiagnosed — like I was three times — continue to persevere, and if necessary, find a new doctor.

Prevention/mitigation

Total fitness — mind, body, spirit, sleep, water, minimizing stress, avoiding agitation and anger, minimizing alcohol, no drugs, etc. — can help mitigate the effects of bipolar and other mental/brain illnesses and are key to recovery.

In addition to medical care, build connections and hope. Find and ground yourself in “people, place and purpose.”

There is a vast network of connections and hope to tap into. The following are good places to start:

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, which offers a crisis line specifically for service members and veterans. Veterans, troops or their family members can also visit VeteransCrisisLine.net or text 838255 for assistance.

Let’s all be informed, and do our part to help stop the stigma and save lives.

Gregg F. Martin, PhD, is a 36-year Army combat veteran, retired two-star general and bipolar survivor. He is a graduate of West Point and MIT, as well as a former president of the National Defense University. He lives with his wife in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he is an ardent mental health advocate. His forthcoming book is entitled “Bipolar General: My ‘Forever War’ with Mental Illness.”

These views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. Government or Department of Defense.

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