When you're diagnosed with a mental illness, it's not a particularly easy thing to talk about with others, largely because there's still a major stigma surrounding mental health issues. But this week, when Mariah Carey opened up about her bipolar diagnosis in an interview with People, the media and fan response has been consistently supportive, creating an excellent opportunity for conversation and advanced understanding around an often-misunderstood condition.
The singer shared with People that, soon after being hospitalized for mental and physical health struggles in 2001, she was diagnosed with bipolar II — something she "didn't want to believe," she told the outlet. But after a few particularly difficult years of keeping this secret from the world, Carey decided she could no longer deny that she had to make her well-being a priority, and that she was done living in shame about her diagnosis. She told People,
Until recently I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me. It was too heavy a burden to carry and I simply couldn’t do that anymore. I sought and received treatment, I put positive people around me and I got back to doing what I love — writing songs and making music.
Currently, the "We Belong Together" singer is being treated for her bipolar II diagnosis with therapy and medication which, she told People, has been helpful to her thus far.
Carey's decision to share her diagnosis with the world isn't just brave; it also serves as an important lesson for people about what bipolar disorder actually is.
According to Ashleigh Edelstein, LMFTA, a Texas-based therapist who works with teens, couples, and young adults, bipolar disorder is often misunderstood or mischaracterized, largely because it's related to mood swings — something that, technically, everyone experiences from time to time, to some degree.
However, "bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings," Edelstein tells me in an interview with Elite Daily. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the condition affects just under 3 percent of the U.S. population.
"If we think of our mood as being on a spectrum, to the far left we have severe depression, in the middle normal, and to the far right mania," Edelstein explains.
In other words, just because you had a really good day at work yesterday, but today, you feel like you're on the verge of tears by the time you get home, that doesn't mean you should be worried you have bipolar disorder. According to Edelstein, a person with bipolar will likely experience constant, dramatic shifts on the mood spectrum, to the point where it interferes with their ability to function day-to-day.
Edelstein says the exact cause of bipolar disorder isn't known, though it is believed to be a combination of brain chemistry, genetics, and environmental stressors.
"To receive a diagnosis of bipolar II," Edelstein says, "you need to have had at least one major depressive episode, with at least one episode of hypomania."
It can be hard to tell whether you're having a hypomania episode, as Carey made clear in her interview with People.
For a long time, the singer told the outlet, she thought she had a sleep disorder. She explained,
But it wasn’t normal insomnia and I wasn’t lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working … I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania.
According to Edelstein, when someone is in a state of mania, they may experience "dramatic and inappropriate rises in mood," as well as a "decreased need for sleep, inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, racing thoughts, talkativeness, recklessness, and an increase in goal-directed activity."
However, she says, this is different from hypomania, which is characteristic of bipolar II, specifically, and is slightly different in the way it manifests in someone.
"Hypomania is sort of like a watered down version of mania," Edelstein tells Elite Daily. "There is still a sense of euphoria, but without the driven quality in a manic episode."
Clearly, bipolar disorder is a complicated condition, and the stigma toward mental health in our culture only makes it harder for us to understand.
Edelstein says this stigma can make it difficult for people to feel safe opening up about mental health issues, just as Mariah Carey expressed in her People interview. In many ways, the counselor explains, it can feel easier to keep a mental health condition a secret.
"It's a widely misunderstood and negatively perceived diagnosis," Edelstein says. "I think over the years, there have been a lot of media depictions of 'manic depressives' as dangerous."
And since there is no cure for bipolar disorder, the diagnosis often requires a lifetime of daily medication. Edelstein says that, for some, the thought of long-term treatment can feel daunting and unfair, making things even more difficult overall.
With Carey's bipolar diagnosis out in the open, the hope is that people will learn more about mental health issues, and feel more comfortable talking about them in general.
Dr. Gregory Kushnick, a psychologist in New York City, tells me in an interview with Elite Daily that it's important for people with a high profile, such as Mariah Carey, to talk about mental health conditions, because it helps everyone become more informed, less judgmental, and more empathetic — which is exactly why Carey shared her story. She told People,
I’m just in a really good place right now, where I’m comfortable discussing my struggles with bipolar II disorder.
I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.