America Has Highest Rate of Bipolar Disorder Diagnoses in 11-Nation Study

Bipolar disorder, a disease characterized by “highs” (called mania) and “lows” (called depression), does not discriminate. It affects men and women equally, has been affecting children more and more, and appears to have a roughly similar incidence across all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. About 2.4% of people around the world are diagnosed with bipolar disorder in their lifetimes.

According to a new 11-nation study conducted by researchers around the world, the United States has the highest incidence of bipolar disorder, at 4.4%. India has the lowest rate at 0.1%, followed by Japan at 0.7%. Lower-income nations typically demonstrated lower rates. Colombia, a lower-income nation, bucked the trend with a incidence of 2.6%.

But why does the U.S. experience the highest bipolar rate among all 11 nations studied? Let’s dig in.

Wealth

Wealth may play a role. Individuals in higher-income nations were more likely to be diagnosed than those in lower-income nations. The exception is Japan, with an incidence rate of 0.7%.

Unfortunately, the U.S. also has the largest worldwide gap between the rich and the poor. The economic stressors are greater than in other Western societies. This means there are more psychological stressors among the poor of America, which may lead to substance abuse and fragmentation of the family.

Immigrant Melting Pot

Genetics may also contribute in the rate of bipolar disorder in different countries. Studies have confirmed that the condition sometimes runs in families, and that the lifetime chance of an identical twin of a bipolar twin developing the disorder is about 40% to 70%. So the genetic makeup of a country may affect the rate.

But what about immigrants? America is known as the “melting pot” of the world, due to all the immigrants that come here. Among people who have emigrated, the actual expression of bipolar disorder is the same as it is in the population that those people have left. However, what’s interesting to note is that, in those cases, their children tend to have higher rates of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, by a factor of as much as tenfold.

Social scientists suspect that the lack of extended family and cultural systems may result in higher incidences of bipolar disorder, as environmental stressors play a factor in the development of the disease. With a lack of familial support, immigrants have less of a buffer in terms of a social network, especially when they first arrive.

And immigrants seeking a new life in America might be more risk-taking than people who stay in their home countries. The immigrant belief that they can find success here takes a certain mindset of grandiosity and other symptoms of hypomania, which may be more common among people who suffer from bipolar disorder.

Stigma

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A stylized map of South America. Credit to flickr.com user Stuart Rankin. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Stigma also plays a part in the incidence rate of bipolar disorder among different countries. Fewer than half of those suffering from the disorder sought help for it. And only a quarter of those in low-income countries were treated by a mental health professional for bipolar disorder.

Some cultures are reluctant to talk about psychiatric things. Lower-income nations experience higher rates of stigma. Fewer people are willing to come forward with their struggle with mental illnesses, which leads to a lower perceived rate of bipolar disorder.

Cultural awareness of mental illnesses also contributes to the problem of stigma. Americans are fairly aware of bipolar disorder as a disease, whereas the symptoms of the condition may be missed or ignored in lower-income nations. This leads to lower rates of diagnosis.

The Bottom Line

No matter where people live, bipolar disorder causes serious impairment among those who suffer from it. People need to be less afraid about seeking help for their mental illnesses. Educating individuals about the disease may help combat stigma. Greater awareness among cultures will only help people get much-needed treatment.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Hi! My name is Cassandra Stout, and I am a freelancer and memoirist who blogs at The Bipolar Parent (Cassandrastout.com/bpparent) and at the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF.org). My current project is Committed, my upcoming memoir that depicts my time spent in a psych ward after a postpartum psychotic breakdown. I am a ten-year member of a five-person critique group called the Seattle Scribblers. It's nice to meet you!

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