Surveys Reveal Gap in Understanding of Bipolar Disorder | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Posted on October 6, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C., — Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment options, public understanding about bipolar disorder remains low, according to two surveys released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) today – Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day. A public knowledge survey, conducted by Harris Interactive®1, shows that even though eight out of ten U.S. adults (82%) claim to know what bipolar disorder is, less than two-thirds (64%) can correctly define bipolar disorder from a list of descriptions of several mental illnesses. In a finding that highlights the stigma still surrounding the illness, less than half (40%) of the population feel that people with bipolar disorder have any difficulty discussing their condition with others, even though an overwhelming number of persons with bipolar disorder (79%) fear repercussions if they do.

"The public’s understanding of bipolar disorder remains unacceptably low, yet with proper diagnosis and treatment, people with bipolar disorder can reclaim their lives and avoid many of the unintended consequences of this disease," said Dr. Ken Duckworth, NAMI medical director and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Our goal is reinforcing the importance of people with bipolar disorder seeking a professional diagnosis and treatment plan and sticking to that regimen."

Other key findings include:

  • A majority of U.S. adults fail to recognize most of the classic symptoms of bipolar disorder. Sixty-four percent of public survey respondents recognized rapid, unpredictable emotional changes as a symptom of bipolar disorder; however, less than half of respondents recognized other bipolar disorder symptoms. Twenty-five percent of the general adult public admitted they were not sure of the symptoms of bipolar disorder1.
  • Only 40 percent of U.S. adults feel people with bipolar disorder have difficulty discussing their condition with others1; however, an overwhelming 79 percent of people with bipolar disorder said this is due to fear of repercussions if they discuss their condition2.
  • Approximately one in five (17%) respondents to the public survey believe that people with bipolar disorder can control their illness without medication if they really want to do so1.
  • Close to two-thirds (62%) feel people with bipolar disorder have difficulty establishing or maintaining relationships, and many feel people with bipolar disorder have difficulty with other life skills, such as consistently attending work or school (52%), managing their time (55%), focusing (54%) and getting or maintaining a job (50%)1.
  • Of public survey respondents who have a family member or friend diagnosed with bipolar disorder, 69 percent agree that the person close to them has experienced consequences from discontinuing medication and/or suggested treatment1.
  • Less than one-third of American adults (28 percent) believe people with bipolar disorder have adequate information and/or resources to help them manage their condition1.

A part of NAMI’s annual Mental Illness Awareness Week, Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day aims to increase awareness of bipolar disorder, promote early detection and accurate diagnosis, reduce stigma, and minimize the devastating impact on the 2.3 million Americans presently affected by the disorder.

"The symptoms of bipolar illness often go unrecognized, leading to misdiagnosis. Given the fact that consequences of lack of treatment are very serious, it is very important for everyone to know that treatment is available and it works," said Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia, MD, President, NAMI National Board of Directors.

Read the Bipolar Disorder Informational Fact Sheet. (pdf, opens in a new browser window)

About Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a serious brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy or functioning that can range from episodes of mania, or "highs," to episodes of depression, or "lows." These mood swings can be mild or severe and may last hours, days or months. These episodes usually begin in late adolescence, but can begin in early childhood or as late as a person’s 40s or 50s.

During an episode of mania, a person may have increased mental and physical energy and exaggerated feelings of optimism or self-confidence. They may experience racing thoughts and speech and convey irrational ideas. In addition, they may exhibit reckless behavior such as embarking on spending sprees, sexual indiscretions or alcohol abuse. In a depressive episode, a person may show increased anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

Approximately 2.3 million Americans are presently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the number affected by this disorder is even greater. Bipolar disorder is a chronic condition and generally requires life-long treatment. With accurate diagnosis and treatment, people with bipolar disorder can lead full and productive lives. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.

If left untreated, people with the disorder are at great risk for suicide, incarceration, substance abuse, job loss, or other harmful consequences. Approximately 40 percent of people with untreated bipolar disorder abuse alcohol or drugs. In addition, the mortality rate for people with untreated bipolar disorder is higher than it is for most types of heart disease and many types of cancer. Approximately 25-50 percent of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once; this is one of the highest rates for any psychiatric disorder.

About the Surveys

1 Harris Interactive® fielded the online survey on behalf of NAMI between September 23 and September 26, 2005 among a nationwide sample of 2,322 U.S. adults 18 years of age or older. The data were weighted to be representative of the total U.S. adult population on the basis of region, age within gender, education, household income, race/ethnicity and propensity to be online. In theory, with probability samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. This online sample is not a probability sample.

2 Simultaneously, NAMI conducted an online survey of people with bipolar disorder on its national website ( This survey assessed the views of 293 American adults, all of whom affirmed they have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day is sponsored by NAMI and supported through an unrestricted educational grant from Abbott.


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