What is Bipolar Disorder?

The Denisonian will now be publishing weekly, informative mental health columns. We feel that this information is important to acknowledge and make accessible on our campus. These are compiled based on research from the American Psychiatry Organization.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a depressive state characterized by periods of mood changes that are either extreme lows or intense highs. Extreme mood periods can last for a few days to a couple months. Another name for this disorder is manic depression, and it is categorized in three conditions: bipolar I, bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder. All three have similar symptoms and treatments.

How does it form?

There is no known cause to bipolar disorder, but genetics, environment and altered chemical structure in the brain are believed to affect the disorder. It is most common in ages 18-60.

What are manic highs?

A manic episode is a period lasting at least one week. Behavior is typically extremely animated or extremely irritable, as a person typically has more energy than usual. Symptoms of a manic episode are often visible to family or friends, and are extreme enough to cause issues in everyday life. Someone in a manic episode experiences at least three of the following, showing a change in behavior:

  • Exaggerated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • Less need for sleep
  • Talking more than usual, talking loudly and quickly
  • Easily distracted
  • Doing many activities at once, scheduling more events in a day than can be accomplished
  • Increased risky behavior (e.g., reckless driving, spending sprees)
  • Uncontrollable racing thoughts or quickly changing ideas or topics

What are depressed lows?

A major depressive episode is a period of two weeks in which a person has at least five of the following (including one of the first two):

  • Intense sadness or despair; feeling helpless, hopeless or worthless
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Sleep problems — sleeping too little or too much
  • Feeling restless or agitated (e.g., pacing or hand-wringing), or slowed speech or movements
  • Changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • Loss of energy, fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering making decisions
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

What does treatment look like?

Like many mental health illnesses, there is no cure for bipolar disorder but there is a variety of treatment. The most common treatments are medications known as “mood stabilizers” and psychotherapy (talk therapy). Medication alone or a combination of talk therapy (psychotherapy) and medication are often used to manage the disorder. In some cases a treatment known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used. Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, therefore ongoing preventive treatment is recommended. People with bipolar disorder may need to try different medications and therapy before finding what works for them.

I think I have bipolar disorder, now what?

The average age for a first manic episode is 18, but it can start anytime from early childhood to later adulthood. If you think you have bipolar disorder, reach out to a counselor immediately and a close family/friend. They can assist in getting you treatment. Bipolar disorder is very common and many people live relatively normal lives with this disorder. The most important thing to remember is to keep up with treatment, as many people become greater risks when they suddenly stop medication or therapy.

Other Important Information:

  • Bipolar disorder is not the same as having mood swings or temperament issues. Bipolar disorder episodes last for more than one day, and changes in the mood do not occur as quickly as regular mood swings.
  • People with bipolar disorder have periods of “normal” moods as well, and are not always either manic or depressed.
  • Bipolar disorder is not the same as a personality disorder.
  • People with bipolar I often have other mental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an anxiety disorder or substance use disorder.
  • The risk of suicide is significantly higher among people with bipolar disorder than among the general population.
  • Since bipolar disorder can cause serious disruptions and create an intensely stressful family situation, family members may also benefit from professional resources, particularly mental health advocacy and support groups.

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