What is Bipolar Disorder?

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Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes disturbances in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function. The severe mood swings that occur generally last for weeks to months at a time, and can result in significant disability through damaged relationships, difficulty with employment and significant risk of harm because of reckless or impulsive behaviour.

Anyone can develop bipolar disorder, but it is most common among people between the ages of 18 and 35. About 1 in a 100 people develop bipolar disorder at some stage during their lives, and it is as common in men as in women.

The exact cause of why some people develop bipolar disorder is not known. However, there are several important factors which are known to play a part in causing the illness. Bipolar disorder can be inherited; people whose parents have bipolar disorder are also more likely to have the illness (although in the majority of cases, children of parents with bipolar disorder do not develop the illness).

People with bipolar disorder have been found to have a disturbance of the chemicals in the brain, which is why the illness can often be controlled with medication.

Stressful life events may increase the chance of developing bipolar disorder among those who are at risk (e.g. those with a family history of the illness) and stress can also make further episodes of either mania or depression more likely in those who already have developed the disorder

Bipolar disorder can cause dramatic mood swings – from a feeling of being elated or uncomfortably irritable, to periods of feeling profoundly sad and hopeless, often with periods of normal moods in between. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression, respectively.
Features or symptoms of a manic phase include:

  • Elation– ‘feeling on top of the world’ – a sensation of utter happiness.
  • Excessive irritability, anger or rage – sometimes the elevated mood is not a pleasurable experience, but causes severe agitation instead.
  • Increased energy and/or restlessness.
  • Less need for sleep.
  • Uncontrollable racing thoughts.
  • Impulsive, risky behaviour, e.g. excessive spending sprees, foolish business investments or out-of-character sexual behaviour.
  • Unrealistic beliefs, such that one is invincible or has special powers.

Depressed Phase:

  • Intense sadness or despair.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in doing things which one previously enjoyed.
  • Loss of energy, fatigue.
  • Sleep difficulties – sleeping too much or too little.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of life not being worth living or of suicide.

Psychotic symptoms:
In severe cases of either mania or depression, psychotic symptoms may develop.

In depression, these may be false firm beliefs of being worthless or guilty or even that a part of the body has stopped working or no longer exists. In mania, the beliefs may be that the person has special powers or has been blessed with a special, unique mission. Sometimes, people hear voices either talking to them or about them.

Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness.

Since bipolar disorder involves a disturbance of the chemicals of the brain, medication plays a very important role in treatment. The type of medications that are known to be effective are called mood stabilizers (e.g. lithium, sodium valproate, etc.).

Medication either alone or in combination with psychological therapy is best for managing the disorder over time in order to help reduce the risk of future mood episodes.

For more resources on psychiatry and mental illness, click here.