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Q&A: Bipolar Disorder and Sociopathy

QUESTION: I have A LOT of questions pertaining this one idea since I'm so determined to get the character's psyche right. I'm writing a story in which my character has un-diagnosed bipolar disorder.
  • How would this, if left untreated, affect a sociopathic character?
  • I know that bipolar disorder gets worse if left untreated, but how much worse could it get before the character is driven to suicide?
  • HOW, specifically, would the disorder get worse?
  • What would have to have occured in his childhood to spark the desire to kill?
  • What would prompt him to choose his victims? Is it just random or would a small force (specifically, accidentally insulting them) set him off?
  • Would the antisocial personality disorder account for the bipolar symptoms, or would they have two completely different sets of symptoms?
We have two different diagnoses going on here, right? Bipolar I disorder (the worst form of bipolar d/o) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (the official name for sociopathy).

Let’s make sure we get each one defined first. Bipolar disorder means your character has both devastating major depressive episodes and full-blown manic episodes. To be diagnosable, these episodes should cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

You also note that the character has not been diagnosed – in other words, no counselor or doctor has said “this is bipolar disorder” and suggested treatment.

The most notable way that bipolar disorder may affect sociopathic behavior is that during manic episodes, when the character’s judgment and impulse control go down, he may do things that are more hurtful to others than someone might otherwise. In other words, the manic episode exacerbates the sociopathic behavior.
I know that bipolar disorder gets worse if left untreated, but how much worse could it get before the character is driven to suicide? HOW, specifically, would the disorder get worse?
If bipolar disorder goes untreated, the character will begin to swing more rapidly between manic and depressive episodes, and the episodes may become more intense. “Rapid cycling” bipolar disorder means that there are at least two cycles a year (mania, depression, and then again, mania, depression). In other words, the character is cycling over months rather than over years. Ultra-rapid cycling occurs over weeks to days, and ultradian cycling happens over days.

Note that rapid cycling happens more as someone becomes older if the disorder is untreated. Also note that your character doesn’t have to be cycling ultra-rapidly if you want him to be moody. Since people with bipolar disorder have a mood “thermostat” that is easily knocked off balance by things like stress, he can be a mercurial sort even if he isn’t cycling rapidly from up to down and vice versa.

Suicide is not always a given with a mood disorder.  Many people consider suicide to try to escape the pain of such extremes in mood, but others do not.  And of those who consider it as an option, only some choose to act on it.
What would have to have occurred in his childhood to spark the desire to kill?
Okay, now we’re talking about the sociopathy. Typically there are a few different things that can trigger the type of dangerousness you’re interested in. The most common are abuse and severe neglect. Children who grow up around violence tend to learn violence as an acceptable way to deal with problems.

Some genetic mutations, brain abnormalities, and frontal lobe (of the brain) injuries can also contribute. You can probably get away with that generic info, but if you want more details, I suggest picking up a copy of my forthcoming book, The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.
What would prompt him to choose his victims? Is it just random or would a small force (like, specifically, accidentally insulting them) set him off?
Most people with APD recognize that breaking the law will get them locked up if they get caught. So they’re probably not going to flip out on someone for something small…unless, of course, they’re in the middle of a manic episode, when their judgment is extremely poor.
Would the antisocial personality disorder account for the bipolar symptoms, or would they have two completely different sets of symptoms?
Definitely two different sets of symptoms! They’re two totally different disorders.

Need accurate and easy-to-understand information on bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or why villains act the way they do for your story? I've got you covered with lots of information on all of those topics in The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior at your favorite online bookstore today! Pre-order a copy now!


Remember, if YOU have a psychology in fiction question you want to see answered here, use the Q&A form on the Archetype site.

5 Comments:

  1. Deb Salisbury said...
    Very interesting! It hadn't occurred to me that two disorders could mesh like that. Thanks!
    Suzie said...
    As an aspiring author (and having been diagnosed with Bipolar II) I have to say, I was very thankful to find and read your blog!

    I went undiagnosed for several years and had tipped into the Ultra-rapid/Ultradian cycling.

    While we (Bipolar people) are more prone to "snap" over little things while undiagnosed, it was nice to see someone being honest about BP. Not all of us are suicidal and certainly we aren't all homicidal. (I think suicide and homicide depends on the persons views and outlooks whether mental unstable or not - but that's just my opinion).

    I think too many TV shows and movies has made Bipolar the "escape all" excuse for why someone goes on a killing spree and it has painted a different picture for society then what we really are.

    My brother is BPI and met several friends that are BP(I & II) through a community health clinic, and not a single one of us has turned homicidal - though, sadly, two has committed suicide and one passed away from an brain aneurysm.

    Sorry for the little mini-rant there. :) I just wanted to say thank you for creating this blog. I look forward to following you and will definitely be looking for your book to help create more accurate characters!
    Ripley said...
    I'm confused... is the questioner suggesting that Bipolar and sociopaths go hand-in-hand? Or that a manic episode that results in violence means the individual is also sociopathic?

    I totally disagree with either of this suggestions. Individuals with Bipolar who react violently during a manic state is still considered a manic expression. Sociopaths (Anti-social personality disorder) is an entirely different disorder. Though both disorders have the potential to become violent, that's where the similarity stops.

    Bipolar has been demonized enough in the media and I take some offense to it being so closely compared to sociopaths and psychopaths.
    scarroll82374 said...
    Thank you for that insight, because I'm diagnosed as bipolar II and is now on medication to calm my symptoms. Before diagnosis I too was cycling through manic and depressive mood swings. As far as violence was concerned, I tend to be more verbally assaulting than physically. Then again, I'm stronger than your average bear, and carry myself as such. Either way, whether it was venting on someone or pummeling them, the one thing was the overwhelming guilt afterward (which I would associate with the depression associated with this disorder). I also resorted to alcohol as a self medication before diagnosis. Unfortunately, this disorder is hereditary. My father has it, so does my aunt, and I fear my 7 year old daughter will have it. But now that I understand it, I can guide her through it.

    I also am an aspiring writer and had a hard time really explaining what the difference of theses psyches were. This blog really helps. My main character was always border-lining on the two disorders and it never made much sense to me on paper. Now I can rewrite his character traits.
    Allison said...
    I found this page while trying to understand my boss, knowing that he has to have some combination of BP and antisocial behavior disorder, and it's been helpful -- as a writer and reader, I completely agree with your movement to apply correct information to fictional characters. Anxiety and depression are incorporated into my life each day, and it helps to know that others are out there, feeling normal and abnormal simultaneously. Nice to know there are resources out there :) Thanks!

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