Accepting Bipolar Disorder as an Invisible Illness & “Disability”

Last Updated: 7 May 2021

Even if people disagree with you, bipolar is real. It’s a brain-based disorder, and you should be proud of overcoming the daily challenges it presents.

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Mental Health Symptoms Are Often Invisible

I have bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder is, of course, invisible. There are noticeable symptoms of a mental health condition that you would be able to identify if you knew me, but, by just looking at me, you would have no idea I have a brain-based disorder.

In this way, bipolar is similar to a brain injury—you can’t see it, and you have no idea whether or how the person is struggling or suffering.

Sometimes, when you have a mental health condition, it actually “disables” your life; it becomes a disability. For me, bipolar disorder affects every minute of every day:

So, when I say it’s a disability, I really do mean it.

(Not) Seeing Is (Not) Believing

The problem is, some people would tell you that because you can’t see bipolar disorder, it doesn’t really exist. This makes calling it and recognizing it as a disability even harder.

I have to say to myself, “I know that bipolar disorder is real. I know that its effects on me are very real. And I know that it’s a disability for me, in spite of the disbelief of other people.”

That’s actually a really hard thing to do. When other people tell you that something doesn’t exist, even though you may disagree with them vehemently, it puts a tiny chink in your armor.

You Don’t Need Others to Confirm Your Reality

What I want to say is this: If you have bipolar disorder—if you have any mental health condition—and it is a disability for you, it is a real thing. Yes, there is something going on in your brain, and there’s no reason why your brain couldn’t theoretically disable you.

What we all need to do is reclaim that word and say that not being in a wheelchair isn’t the same as not being disabled.

Just because you can’t see what’s wrong doesn’t mean nothing is.

Read more:
VIDEO: Bipolar Disorder and the Fear of Wearing Out Friendships
VIDEO: Bipolar Disorder & Too Depressed to Shower

Originally posted March 9, 2018

About the author
Natasha Tracy is an award-winning mental health writer, keynote speaker, and consultant; she also lives with bipolar disorder. She has written the acclaimed book, Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar and writes frequently on her own blog, Bipolar Burble, and at HealthyPlace and elsewhere. She was the proud recipient of the Erasing the Stigma Leadership Award in 2014 and a Health Activist Award in 2019. Natasha is considered a subject matter expert in bipolar disorder, and she works to bring quality, insightful, and trusted information to the public. Connect with Natasha on her website, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
  1. This is exactly what I needed to watch today. Last night my husband and I socialized with some friends. I felt uncomfortable for most of the evening… There are too many reasons to list them all but many of them have to do with having PTSD and BP. I awoke this morning feeling terrible. I keep reliving conversations and judging myself. I feel like such a loser because everyone in the group has successful careers. They take pride in being “type A” and wearing their busyness as a badge of honor. I am in my 40s and was diagnosed with BP in my teens. I have spent so much time in and out of institutions. Mood stability is my main goal. I wish I could have other goals like so many people around me but it’s a full time job trying to stay out of suicidal depression or destructive mania. This video gave me an aha moment, a moment of self compassion because I really do have a disability. I also loved one of the comments that mentioned how they dread the question, “What do you do for a living?” I dread this question too. It’s so comforting that there is a whole community here that understands why that question can create shame and embarrassment. I guess every human being could answer that with “trying to stay alive” but for those of us with mental illness, trying to stay alive can at times can be our only vocation. None of us chose to have a brain disease. We are coping the best way that we can. Thank you Natasha, BP Hope & the BP Hope community.

  2. Thank you for this. I am on disability for my bipolar disorder. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my bipolar disorder is a disability to me. It’s really, really hard to have to have an invisible illness and on top of that have it be a mental illness and have people believe in your disability, as you say. It’s too much pressure. And doing everything else is, too. I’m very upfront about my diagnosis. I try to fight the stigma. But about being disabled? I don’t volunteer that. The question,”so what do you do for a living?” is a dreaded one, for sure.

  3. This is most likely going to be unpopular. I wonder why you tell people you have bipolar. If you know them you can probably can tell how they will react. Use caution in who choose to discuss this sensitive and yes, disabling, illness to. Transparency isn’t always a good thing. Protect yourself, if you don’t talk about having bipolar you can get rid of this problem. Good luck and I know about having bipolar. Really, most people don’t care.

  4. Practically every time I Google a symptom I struggle with, one of your articles comes up. Your honesty and eloquence have provided me with so much reassurance. And you did it again! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. Is it bc of the depression that us BP folks have such a hard time with showering? This issue has gotten way worse the older I get.

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