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Harvard Psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Nierenberg Talks About Misunderstanding Bipolar Disorder

Editor's Note: This is a clip from our new video series "Andy Irons: Raw Outtakes," which serves as an intimate glimpse into the anecdotes and parting memories that didn't make the film, told by Andy’s friends and family with insights on bipolar disorder and substance abuse from leading medical specialists. This digital series sets out to expand what we know about the world champion surfer's life and the hidden struggles he faced including substance abuse and bipolar disorder. For more information about the feature film please visit tetongravity.com/andy.

Bipolar disorder is far more prevalent than the average reader might assume–according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 4.4 percent of all adults in the U.S. will experience a bipolar disorder in their lifetime. That equates out to roughly 14.3 million Americans.

RELATED: Get tickets to our Andy Irons: Kissed by God tour

Yet despite those numbers, in general there can still exist a stigma and a misunderstanding around bipolar disorder and how it affects the inner machinations of the mind.

While some might assume that people who suffer from bipolar dysfunction can't function in society and live productive lives, the exact opposite is often true: Those who suffer from bipolar disorder often live extremely successful lives.

"Bipolar disorder is a disorder of mood, of energy, of motivation, of sleep," Dr. Andrew Nierenburg, the director of Harvard's Dauten Family Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation, told TGR. "And people who have it will have either a manic episode or a hypomanic episode at some point in their lifetime. Now, manic episode is when people almost don't have any inhibitions anymore. They're full of energy, creativity, but they also may do things that they wouldn't ordinarily do that even they would think was not good judgment."

As Nierenburg notes, those with bipolar disorder often achieve a heightened creative ability through their manic highs. Those people–figures like Andy Irons or Vincent Van Gogh, can achieve true greatness because, in many ways, their brains are operating on a different level than the general population.

But what people often don't understand about those with bipolar disorder is that there is often a flip side to that manic high is that lack of inhibition can manifest itself in destructive behavior: Per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of all people who suffer from bipolar disorder suffer from subtsance abuse disorders.

"[Bipolar disorder sufferers will] spend all the money that they have in one day and then be broke from that. Have sexual indiscretions. Do drugs they wouldn't ordinarily do. Drive faster than they ordinarily would do, and essentially do things that could really be dangerous for them and have bad consequences," said Nierenburg. "They may actually start to have hallucinations and delusions. They're moving fast and generally they might be euphoric or they also might be irritable."

The important aspect to note with all of this is that what is needed most in dealing with people who suffer from bipolar disorder is compassion and understanding. 

"Stigma is still a big problem for people who have bipolar disorder,” Nierenburg said. “Many people keep the diagnosis a secret. Many people won't tell people at work that they have that ... it's a tough job for these people. They've been dealt a hand that they haven't asked for. So, for those of us who are free of such things, I think that the best we can do is to try to be as helpful as possible, really try to withhold judgment and then try to see if we can help people down a path so they can live a good life.”

If you suspect you or someone you know may be suffering from a bipolar disorder, please, contact the SAMHSA national helpline.

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