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What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder(which is also known as manic depression) is a mental illness involving episodes of serious mania and depression. These can be severe mood swings accompanied by changes in emotions, thoughts, behaviours, physical health and functioning. The mood swings are more extreme and more prolonged than the everyday ups and downs that we all experience. Emotions may vary from from depression and hopelessness through to feeling overly elated('high') or irritable. People usually go through periods of normal mood in between these times.

Bipolar disorder is not your fault, nor is it the result of a 'weak' or unstable personality. Men and women are equally as likely to be affected. It typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood and continues throughout life, although it can sometimes start in early childhood or as late as the 40's or 50's.

Effective treatments are available that greatly alleviate the suffering caused by bipolar disorder and can usually prevent its devastating complications. These include marital breakups, job loss, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

Bipolar disorder is an illness and not a disease. It rather niggles me when people say that it's a disease. That is fine if they genuinely do not know the difference between an illness and a disease. Yet a disease is a condition that is generally caused by infection. Bipolar disorder cannot not contracted through any form of contact with someone that has it. It is a genetic disorder, so you have it when you were born. If you are manic depressive it can get triggered by a number of things and/or creep up on you at any point of your life.

Bipolar disorders are usually divided into the following patterns:

Bipolar I

  • Not the most common form of the illness
  • Depression and intense episodes of mania
  • Often long periods of stability
  • Can have recurrent episodes of depression with one/two spectacular episodes of mania

Bipolar II

  • Recurrent depressions and brief hypomanic episodes
  • Elations are not as severe and are diagnosed as hypomania
  • Hard to recognize because hypomania may seem normal if the person is very productive and avoids getting into serious trouble

Bipolar III

  • The elations occur secondary to antidepressant medication
  • Often a family history
  • Some have manic episodes only(referred to as unipolar manic episodes)

Rapid Cycling

  • Four or more episodes in one year
  • "Out of control", rollercoaster, yo-yo tendencies
  • In and out of hospital
  • Difficult to medicate
  • 5-15% of all patients with bipolar disorders
  • 85% are female

Can bipolar disorder be confused with anything else?

Bipolar disorder can be confused with other disorders, including a variety of anxiety disorders and psychotic disorders(such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder). This is because anxiety and psychotic symptoms often occur during the course of bipolar disorder. Individuals with bipolar disorder also frequently suffer from psychiatric disorders that are "comorbid" with(are present in addition to) the bipolar illness. The most common of these comorbid conditions are substance abuse disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. If you have any concerns about whether your diagnosis is correct, you should feel comfortable asking the doctor to explain how he or she arrived at a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

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© Mark Hannant
Published 2nd May 2001