Cause of Death: Bipolar Disorder, Mental Illness

Have you ever heard of mental illness being a cause of death? Cause of death: schizophrenia or cause of death: bipolar or cause of death: anorexia? No? Me neither. That’s in spite of the fact that for some mental illnesses, like depression and bipolar, suicide attempts are an actual symptom of the illness. In other words, if a person dies by suicide and they’re bipolar, really, the cause of death is bipolar. So why don’t we popularly recognize mental illness as a cause of death? 

Bipolar as A Cause of Death

As I recently remarked on a piece on bipolar depression and exercise, people with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome (and, yes, these are risks that go beyond medication side effects). But if a person with bipolar died of cardiovascular disease, the cause of death would never be bipolar even though it’s bipolar that may have been the causational factor (or not, it’s hard to say).
With suicide it’s even clearer. One symptom of bipolar disorder is suicidal ideation and/or suicide attempt(s) and we know that 25-50% of people with bipolar disorder will, in fact, attempt suicide (depending on the study). What’s more, current data suggests 11% will die of suicide. That’s more than 1-in-10.  And yet, still, bipolar is never listed as a cause of death.

Suicide Listed as A Cause of Death

In fact, in many instances, even suicide is not listed as a cause of death. People actively try to avoid citing suicide as a cause of death. I think this isn’t fair, accurate or right. Yes, it hurts the family when the cause of death is suicide, no doubt, but the person is dead either way so how about we deal with reality instead of a slightly more comfortable lie?

Stigma around Mental Illness, Bipolar as A Cause of Death

Oh, yes, I get it. No one wants to admit that a loved one has died by suicide and no one wants to admit that his or her loved one had a serious mental illness. Hello mental illness stigma.

And people may think this is an acceptable cover-up, after all, why make death any more uncomfortable for people?

I’ll tell you why, because until we deal with the truth underlying bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses we can’t expect to beat them. I tell audiences all the time to learn the factsabout bipolar disorder because you cannot defeat an enemy you do not understand and this falls squarely into that territory. We need to know that mental illness kills people. We need to be able to admit it. We need to be able to say it. Because until we do, mental illness will simply remain in the shadows with more and more stigma building every day.

There is nothing wrong and nothing shameful about admitting that a serious mental illness took the life of someone you love. You wouldn’t hesitate to say that cancer killed a loved one or that heart disease was a cause of death – why is mental illness any different? It isn’t. We can’t let it be. If we say we want mental illness to be treated like any other illness then this is an area we have to change. Bipolar has almost taken my life and I hope that if one day it finally kills me altogether, my family and friends have the courage to say that my cause of death was bipolar disorder. Maybe saying this truth will underscore the importance of dealing with and medically treating serious mental illnesses.