The Experience of Being Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in Emerging Adulthood: A Phenomenological Analysis

Emily Woodman Maynard, Fordham University


The bipolar disorders (BD) are serious mental illnesses with disruptive and distressing symptoms. Early intervention for bipolar has been found to predict better long-term outcomes. However, many emerging adults (ages 18-25) with bipolar symptoms do not perceive a need for such treatments and do not seek mental health care. Understanding the experience of diagnosis from the perspective of the patient is important to improve access to care for these individuals. This study used phenomenological analysis of narrative interviews with nine participants with BD to understand the experience of being diagnosed with BD in emerging adulthood. The phenomenological structure of the experience of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder was identified, beginning with the structure of experiences that would later be considered bipolar symptoms. Participants responded to a diagnosis either by opposing it or admitting it as a possibility, and were motivated by a desire to obtain greater agency over their challenges and to move forward successfully into adulthood. The transitions from opposition to admittance, and from admittance to acceptance of the diagnosis, were described and contextualized within the developmental context of emerging adulthood. Specific research objectives were met, included describing the experiential processes of diagnosis, the processes which led to rejection or acceptance of a diagnosis, the impact of the diagnosis on the person’s sense of self, and the effect of the diagnosis on one’s social/relational position. This study contributes to the current literature by articulating the specific phenomenology of experiences later considered to be symptoms of BD and situating them within the developmental context of emerging adulthood, and by describing the transition from prediagnostic life to the moment of the diagnosis and its aftermath. Recovering one’s agency was a central motivation for emerging adults with BD and this finding is related to self-determination theory. Psychoanalytic and critical interpretations are presented with regards to paradoxical aspects of the bipolar diagnosis and to difficulties at distinguishing between the self and the disorder. The clinical implications of the findings are discussed in relation to collaborative models of care, enhancing the therapeutic alliance, attending to the meaning of the diagnosis, and peer-led recovery communities.

Subject Area

Health sciences|Psychology|Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Maynard, Emily Woodman, "The Experience of Being Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in Emerging Adulthood: A Phenomenological Analysis" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10125225.