Demystifying Bipolar Disorder

Demystifying Bipolar Disorder

Demystifying Bipolar Disorder

Some of television’s most popular characters have struggled with bipolar disorder. In the throes of a manic episode, a CIA agent pins a spiderweb of red string across photos on a wall. It looks like a frenzied mess to anyone on the outside looking in. Yet, somehow, she manages to unravel a nest of international terrorist while her life is in chaos.

A teen heroine alternates between episodes of drug-fueled mania and deep depression after the death of her father and a bad breakup.

Far from the fictional portrayals, about six million real adults, teens and children struggle with bipolar disorder (BD) in the U.S. It’s often diagnosed before the age of 25, and once it is, BD doesn't go away.

For those who have BD themselves or a family member who does, understanding the disorder is an important step in managing it.

Mania and Depression Aren’t “Mood Swings”

All of us have ups and downs. Sometimes we feel happy. Other times, we’re sad. It’s normal. The highs (mania) and lows (depression) of bipolar disease are very different.

During periods of mania, individuals become hyperactive. Their thoughts race. Their behavior can be risky. They don’t sleep and can grow irritable. Rage can rear its head, too.

A depressive episode can make people feel helpless, hopeless and worthless. They may not sleep – or sleep all the time. They have no energy or interest in the things they used to do. Many consider ending their life.  

Symptoms make it hard for the person to function. It may even put them in danger. It also makes it hard for friends, family members and coworkers to cope with the situation.

Finding Hope and Help

People diagnosed with bipolar disorder won’t outgrow it. It’s not temporary. It won’t get better on its own. If left untreated, the disease can cause serious problems. That’s why it’s important to get help if you think you or someone you love suffers from the disease.

A doctor has the tools to diagnose BD and offer help. Along with gathering medical history, a doctor may ask questions about symptoms, stress and support. They may even talk with family members to get deeper insights. 

Not All BD Is the Same

There are actually four types of BD.

  • With bipolar I disorder, a person has had one or more episodes of mania. While they will have periods of mania, they can also experience depressive episodes.
  • People with bipolar II disorder shift between depressive and mild manic (hypomanic) periods. The never have a “full” manic episode.
  • When someone experiences chronic hypomania and mild depression for at least two years, they have cyclothymic disorder. They will have cycles of hypomania and milder depression that occur at least half the time of those two years.
  • When someone doesn’t meet the criteria for the above, but still has significant periods of abnormal mood elevation, they are diagnosed as bipolar disorder (“other specified” and “unspecified”).
Without Help, It Can Lead to Suicide leaving site icon

On average, the lifespan of someone diagnosed with BD is nine to 17 years shorter than average. Research shows up to 20 percent of untreated BD sufferers end their own lives. Still, many die prematurely because they are never diagnosed or receive the treatment they need to cope with daily life.

It’s Very Treatable

Good medical help makes all the difference for people struggling with bipolar disorder. Working closely with care providers, they can manage their disease and enjoy more balanced, healthier lives.

Medicines. They make up the main treatment for BD. A combination may be used to stabilize extreme mood changes. It’s important to take them as directed. Don’t stop, even if you start to feel better.

Counseling. “Talk therapy” or “psychotherapy” – can help you work out some of the problems caused by your illness. Support groups can help, too.

Self-awareness. Learning about BD and how to recognize the early onset of symptoms can help prevent or lessen the severity of an episode.

Lifestyle choices. A healthy diet, exercise, good sleep habits, meditation and prayer can all play a role in nurturing the body. They won’t take the place of medication and counseling, though. Always do them along with your prescribed treatments.

If you have concerns about bipolar disorder, talk with your doctor. It’s the first step in finding the right kind of help for you or your family member.

Sources: Homeland: A True Portrayal of Mental Illness, leaving site icon Psychology Today, 2014;   Euphoria Took Risks for the Right Reasons, leaving site icon The Washington Post, 2019; Bipolar Disorder, leaving site icon National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2017; Bipolar Disorder, leaving site icon InterMountain Healthcare, 2020; Suicide Risk in Bipolar Disorder: A Brief Review, leaving site icon National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019