The Joys and Sorrows of Treating Bipolar Disorder

Patients who take control of their treatment have the potential to excel.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

I have treated patients with psychiatric illnesses for over 30 years. For about the second half of that time, I have specialized in treating people with mood disorders, primarily bipolar disorder. Sometimes I think there’s a selfish reason behind this specialization: I can make a big difference in people’s lives because bipolar disorder is eminently treatable. Many of the patients I have treated live completely normal lives and some people with bipolar disorder lead extraordinary lives.

I once had the privilege of introducing my colleague Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison at a speaking event. Jamison, an internationally recognized expert on the disorder, also happens to suffer from bipolar disorder herself. Her resume of accomplishments is so long that, having to keep the intro to a few minutes, I only had time to list her dozen or so honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world to give the audience a hint of her credentials.

One of my former patients authored a book that was on the New York Times bestseller list a few years back. I’ve lost count of the number of professors, doctors, nurses, and business leaders that I’ve treated who have excelled in life.

Source: Wynncliffe/StockSnap

I remember meeting someone at a cocktail party years ago who, when he heard that I was a psychiatrist, said something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s too bad, it must be so frustrating for you because no one ever gets better.” I was flabbergasted. “No one ever gets better” couldn’t be farther from the truth.     

There are, however, many people with bipolar disorder who don’t do nearly as well as those I’ve been talking about so far. They are in and out of psychiatric hospitals, unemployed and impoverished, sometimes estranged from family members who have given up on them. Why? Because many of them just don’t understand what they’re up against. I tell newly diagnosed patients with bipolar disorder that they need to be an active and dedicated participant in their treatment in order to do well, usually something along the lines of, “You need to do whatever it takes to take control of this illness—because if you don’t control it, it will control you.”

I also proudly quote for patients the Latin motto of the university where I trained and where I am now on the faculty, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That motto is Veritas vos liberabit, which translates to “The Truth Will Set You Free.” I believe that knowing the truth about bipolar disorder, what it is, understanding the frightful potential that it has to wreck lives, how it is treated and just as important, the lifestyle changes required to keep it at bay can indeed set sufferers free to live the life that they desire and be their best selves.      

In this blog, I want to share these “truths” with you so that you or your loved one can join the ranks of those for whom having bipolar disorder is just an entry in their medical record, not something that disrupts or takes control of their life.  

Bipolar disorder can be a tough opponent, and sometimes the truth about it can be hard to take. But I truly believe that Veritas vos liberabit!