During the aftermath of the Orlando shooting tragedy, the news media reported that Omar Mateen, the shooter, had been labeled as bipolar by his ex-wife, Sitora Yusify. She told reporters, “A few months after we were married, I saw his instability and I saw that he was bipolar and he would get mad out of nowhere. He was mentally unstable and mentally ill.”
But was the terrorist Mateen truly suffering from bipolar disorder?
The term bipolar is often used these days in the aftermath of mass shootings. To many people, “bipolar” describes anyone who is violent and unpredictable. Searching for explanations to senseless or heinous acts, we are quick to blame mental illness as the cause. Labeling such violent perpetrators as “bipolar” increases the stigma against an already vulnerable part of our population who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
So are we as a nation right in saying that Mateen and others like him are bipolar? Let’s take a look:
The Truth About Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar Disorder, at one time called “manic-depressive illness”, is a brain disorder that causes extreme mood swings. These extreme mood swings can be elevated (high) moods or depressive (low) moods. People with bipolar disorder will have these mood episodes (distinct periods of extreme mood swing) that are drastically different from the behavior and moods typical for that person, showing extreme changes in energy, activity and sleep levels. Only 3% of the people in the USA are estimated to have bipolar disorder at some point in their life.
When the mood is elevated, the behavior can seem over-the-top. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the elevated mood is known as mania or hypomania. During mania, the mood is extremely up and elated, showing energized behavior. The person exhibiting mania is said to be having a manic episode.
During a manic episode, a person with bipolar disorder will have a lot of energy, feel “jumpy” or “wired”, have trouble sleeping, can feel like their thoughts are going very fast, and be agitated or irritable. They think they can do many things at once. Often, they will do risky things, like have reckless sex or spend a lot of money. They may even believe they are famous, wealthy, have been chosen, or have special powers. Their over-the-top behavior and beliefs must impair their ability to socialize or work for the episode to be classified as manic.
When the manic episode has less severe symptoms, the person exhibits hypomania and is having a hypomanic episode. They may be highly productive, feel very good, and function well. Some hypomanic people show increased creativity, while others are irritable and demonstrate poor judgment. Hypomania is commonly seen as a less serious form of bipolar disorder, for the hypomanic person can function day to day. However, hypomania can eventually swing towards severe depression, and then becomes debilitating for the individual.
On the other end of the spectrum is the low mood, or depression. During a depressive episode, a person with bipolar disorder may feel hopeless, empty, very sad, and down, with very little energy and decreased activity levels. They may exhibit worry, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, and over- or under-eating. Psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode may include believing that he/she is ruined and penniless, or that they have committed a crime. Thoughts often turn toward death and suicide.
What is important to note is that when a person suffering with bipolar disorder is either severely (dysphoric) manic or severely depressed, meaning they are exhibiting truly extreme bipolar behavior at one end of the scale or the other, they are unable to function properly day to day.
Bipolar disorder is an illness. It does not have a bearing on a person’s character or personality traits and it is not a set of characteristics that a person displays daily throughout their life.
Bipolar Disorder and Violence
Individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder generally do not exhibit outbursts of anger. They do not have daily mood swings from minute to minute set off by negligible triggers. And they do not commit mass murders.
Aggression and violent behavior generally occurs when a person with bipolar disorder is having a dysphoric manic episode. During the episode, the individual may lash out if being forced to take medicine or is highly irritated with someone. Mostly, the individual does damage to him/herself.
Violent crime for the person with bipolar disorder mostly happens when the individual is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A study conducted by Fazel, Lichtenstein, Grann, Goodwin and Langstrom in 2010 showed that the risk of individuals with bipolar disorder committing violent crimes is low compared to the general population when alcohol or substance abuse is not present.
Omar Mateen and Bipolar Disorder
We may never know fully what prompted Omar Mateen to display such violent behavior. To date, no evidence of a medical diagnosis of bipolar disorder has been uncovered, so to propagate that he was “bipolar” is misleading and incorrect.
What we do know is that we must be careful to label perpetrators of mass shootings as “bipolar”, which further marginalizes those who truly suffer from the illness of bipolar disorder. It is vital to abstain from using a colloquial or slang term for the perpetrator of such a heinous crime. It masks the true mental state of the perpetrator through improper language and inadvertently harms others.