Bipolar Disorder

  • Increase font size
  • Decrease font size

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness is a serious mood disorder that affects 1-2% of the population.

The condition is called 'bipolar' disorder, because the person's mood can alternate between 'two poles' of extreme mood state from mania (highs) to depression (lows). During the manic episode people are overly happy or euphoric, or very irritable. During the depressive episode they feel very sad and hopeless. In between episodes people may have normal moods. The changes in mood or 'mood swings' can last for hours, days, weeks or months. In contrast to the normal 'ups and downs' in healthy people, these mood swings can be severe and life threatening and interfere with normal, healthy functioning.

When left untreated the illness can have devastating consequences such as alcohol and substance abuse, damaged relationships, poor work or school performance, financial and social problems and increased risk of suicide.

What causes bipolar disorder?

While the exact cause for bipolar disorder is not known, researchers believe it may be associated with an imbalance in certain biochemicals in the brain. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families and more than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the disorder or with major depression. However, genetics cannot completely explain who gets the disease and who does not. It may be that the development of the illness is due to a process of sensitisation (also known as kindling). This idea suggests that the first episodes of illness may be induced or 'triggered' by a major life change or stressful event, but that each episode causes changes in the brain that make the next episode more likely, and eventually leads to spontaneously occurring episodes.

A proper diagnosis it should be based on the current symptoms, the course of the illness, the patient's history and the family history when available. A psychiatrist usually diagnoses bipolar disorder.

What are possible symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is characterised by symptoms that occur in distinct episodes with periods of normal mood in between. Many times, there is no clear pattern of when or how frequently manic episodes will occur, or when or how often they alternate with depressive episodes.

At the onset of mania people feel unusually excited, more creative and active, more sociable and self-confident. Unfortunately their feelings become more exaggerated and can quickly escalate out of control into a full-blown manic episode.

Severe mania may be accompanied by psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations (hearing, feeling and seeing things that are not there) or delusions (believing things that are not true). People with bipolar disorder who have these symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, another mental illness.

During a depressive episode people feel down and very sad. They often feel like their life is not worth living anymore. Severe depression may also be accompanied by hallucinations and delusions.

Can bipolar disorder treated?

There are two common types of treatment: (1) medication and (2) psychotherapy ('talking' therapy). A combination of both treatment types usually works best.

The main treatment for bipolar disorder is prescribed medications to control the person's mood. These medicines are called 'mood stabilizers' and are effective for preventing future episodes and for treating an episode after it has begun. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for extended periods of time (years).

Additional medications are prescribed to treat episodes of mania or depression that break through, despite the use of mood stabilizers. For example antipsychotics are mainly prescribed during a manic episode while antidepressant medications are commonly given during a depressive episode.

Psychotherapy, in addition to medication is often beneficial in providing support, education, and guidance to the person with bipolar disorder and their family. This can be helpful in preventing future episodes.

For more information see your Doctor or Healthcare Professional.