Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. Different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through, the symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance and even suicide. But there is good news: bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives. It is estimated that somewhere between 2 million and 5 million American adults, 1 or about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop them late in life. It is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person's life. Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist who specializes in mood disorders and suffers from bipolar herself, wrote in her critically acclaimed book An Unquiet Mind , "Manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live. It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide." She adds, "I am fortunate that I have not died from my illness, fortunate in having received the best medical care available, and fortunate in having the friends, colleagues, and family that I do." What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder? Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swingsfrom overly "high" and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes in mood. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression. Signs and symptoms of mania (or a manic episode ) include:
A manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the other symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for 1 week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present. Signs and symptoms of depression (or a depressive episode ) include:
A depressive episode is diagnosed if five
or more of these symptoms last most of the day, nearly
every day, for a period of 2 weeks or longer. A mild to
moderate level of mania is called hypomania . Hypomania
may feel good to the person who experiences it and may
even be associated with good functioning and enhanced productivity.
Thus, even when family and friends learn to recognize the
mood swings as possible bipolar disorder, the person may deny
that anything is wrong. Without proper treatment, however,
hypomania can become severe mania in some people or can
switch into depression. Sometimes, severe episodes of mania
or depression include symptoms of psychosis (or psychotic
symptoms). Common psychotic symptoms are hallucinations
(hearing, seeing, or otherwise sensing the presence of
things not actually there) and delusions (false, strongly
held beliefs not influenced by logical reasoning or explained
by a person's usual cultural concepts). Psychotic symptoms
in bipolar disorder tend to reflect the extreme mood state
at the time. For example, delusions of grandiosity, such
as believing one is the President or has special powers or
wealth, may occur during mania; delusions of guilt or worthlessness,
such as believing that one is ruined and penniless or has
committed some terrible crime, may appear during depression.
People with bipolar disorder who have these symptoms are
sometimes incorrectly diagnosed as having schizophrenia,
another severe mental illness. It may be helpful to think
of the various mood states in bipolar disorder as a spectrum or continuous range. At one end is severe depression, above
which is moderate depression and then mild low mood, which
many people call "the blues" when it is short-lived but is termed "dysthymia" when
it is chronic. Then there is normal or balanced mood, above
which comes hypomania (mild to moderate mania), and then
In some people, however, symptoms of mania and depression may occur together in what is called a mixed bipolar state. Symptoms of a mixed state often include agitation, trouble sleeping, and significant change in appetite, psychosis, and suicidal thinking. A person may have a very sad, hopeless mood while at the same time feeling extremely energized. Bipolar disorder may appear to be a problem other than mental illnessfor instance, alcohol or drug abuse, poor school or work performance, or strained interpersonal relationships. Such problems in fact may be signs of an underlying mood disorder.
Diagnosis: Like other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder cannot yet be identified physiologicallyfor example, through a blood test or a brain scan. Therefore, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made on the basis of symptoms, course of illness, and, when available, family history. The diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV). Depression often involves the inability to do anything well, as if one's mind as slowed down and burned out to the point of being useless. At first, hypomania feels tremendous -- ideas are fast, like shooting stars you follow until bright ones appear -- and then the seducing power is replaced with mania where the ideas become to fast, overwhelming, confusing, frightening, and leads to fear, pain and agitation.
Can Children and Adolecents Have Bipolar Disorder? Both children and adolescents can develop bipolar disorder. It is more likely to affect the children of parents who have the illness. Unlike many adults with bipolar disorder, whose episodes tend to be more clearly defined, children and young adolescents with the illness often experience very fast mood swings between depression and mania many times within a day. Children with mania are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive tantrums than to be overly happy and elated. Mixed symptoms also are common in youths with bipolar disorder. Older adolescents who develop the illness may have more classic, adult-type episodes and symptoms. Bipolar disorder in children and adolescents can be hard to tell apart from other problems that may occur in these age groups. For any illness, however, effective treatment depends on appropriate diagnosis. Children or adolescents with symptoms should be carefully evaluated by a mental health professional.
Suicide Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal. Anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or a physician. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. If an individual is unable to reach a mental health professional, call 911 immediately. Risk for suicide appears to be higher earlier in the course of the illness. Therefore, recognizing bipolar disorder early and learning how best to manage it may decrease the risk of death by suicide.Signs and symptoms that may accompany suicidal feelings include:
If you are feeling suicidal or know someone who is: call a doctor, emergency room, or 911 right away to get immediate help; make sure you, or the suicidal person, are not left alone and make sure that access is prevented to large amounts of medication, weapons, or other items that could be used for self-harm.While some suicide attempts are carefully planned over time, others are impulsive acts that have not been well thought out; thus, the final point in the box above may be a valuable long-term strategy for people with bipolar disorder. It should be remembered that death occurs in bipolar persons both when they are depressed, usually through suicide, and when they are manic, through accidents or as the result of hallucinations. Either way, it is important to understand that suicidal feelings and actions are symptoms of an illness that can be treated. With proper treatment, suicidal feelings can be overcome.
What Causes Bipolar Disorder? Scientists are learning about the possible causes of bipolar disorder through several kinds of studies. Most scientists now agree that there is no single cause for bipolar disorderrather, many factors act together to produce the illness.Because bipolar disorder tends to run in families, researchers have been searching for specific genesthe microscopic "building blocks" of DNA inside all cells that influence how the body and mind work and growpassed down through generations that may increase a person's chance of developing the illness. But genes are not the whole story. Studies of identical twins, who share all the same genes, indicate that both genes and other factors play a role in bipolar disorder. If bipolar disorder were caused entirely by genes, then the identical twin of someone with the illness would always develop the illness, and research has shown that this is not the case. But, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Genetics Workgroup, if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other twin is more likely to develop the illness than is another sibling.
In addition, findings from gene research suggest that bipolar disorder, like other mental illnesses, does not occur because of a single gene, according to the book Biological Psychology . It appears likely that many different genes act together, and in combination with other factors of the person or the person's environment, to cause bipolar disorder. Finding these genes, each of which contributes only a small amount toward the vulnerability to bipolar disorder, has been extremely difficult. But scientists expect that the advanced research tools now being used will lead to these discoveries and to new and better treatments for bipolar disorder.
Brain-imaging studies are helping scientists learn what goes wrong in the brain to produce bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. New brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to take pictures of the living brain at work, to examine its structure and activity, without the need for surgery or other invasive procedures. These techniques include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). There is evidence from imaging studies that the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy individuals. As the differences are more clearly identified and defined through research, scientists will gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of the illness, and eventually may be able to predict which types of treatment will work most effectively.
What is the Course of Bipolar Disorder? Episodes of mania and depression typically recur across the life span. Between episodes, most people with bipolar disorder are free of symptoms, but as many as one-third of people have some residual symptoms. A small percentage of people experience chronic unremitting symptoms despite treatment. The classic form of the illness, which involves recurrent episodes of mania and depression, is called bipolar I disorder . Some people, however, never develop severe mania but instead experience milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with depression; this form of the illness is called bipolar II disorder . When four or more episodes of illness occur within a 12-month period, a person is said to have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Some people experience multiple episodes within a single week, or even within a single day. Rapid cycling tends to develop later in the course of illness and is more common among women than among men.
People with bipolar disorder can lead healthy and productive lives when the illness is effectively treated. Without treatment, however, the natural course of bipolar disorder tends to worsen. According to research by Dr. Jamison and Dr. Frederick Goodwin, an expert on bipolar and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, over time a person may suffer more frequent (more rapid-cycling) and more severe manic and depressive episodes than those experienced when the illness first appeared. But in most cases, proper treatment can help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes and can help people with bipolar disorder maintain good quality of life.
How is Bipolar Disorder Treated? Most people with bipolar disordereven those with the most severe formscan achieve substantial stabilization of their mood swings and related symptoms with proper treatment, according to leading researchers in psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder.
Because bipolar disorder is a recurrent illness, long-term preventive treatment is strongly recommended and almost always indicated. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.
In most cases, bipolar disorder is much better controlled if treatment is continuous than if it is on and off. But even when there are no breaks in treatment, mood changes can occur and should be reported immediately to your doctor. The doctor may be able to prevent a full-blown episode by making adjustments to the treatment plan. Working closely with the doctor and communicating openly about treatment concerns and options can make a difference in treatment effectiveness.
In addition, keeping a chart of daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events may help people with bipolar disorder and their families to better understand the illness. This chart also can help the doctor track and treat the illness most effectively.