Bipolar Disorder

What is a bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is an illness involving one or more episodes of serious mania and depression. The illness causes a person’s mood to swing from excessively “high” and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, with periods of a normal mood in between. More than 10 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood, between the ages of 15 and 30, and continues throughout life. It is often not recognized as an illness and people who have it may suffer needlessly for years.

Bipolar disorder can be extremely distressing and disruptive for those who have this disease, their spouses, family members, friends and employers. Although there is no known cure, bipolar disorder is treatable, and recovery is possible. Individuals with bipolar disorder have successful relationships and meaningful jobs. The combination of medications and psychotherapy helps the vast majority of people return to productive, fulfilling lives.

What things put a person at higher risk of experiencing a bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects about 10 million Americans. Women and men are equally likely to develop the disorder, and it affects all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. Bipolar disorder usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood. No one knows for certain what causes bipolar illness, but its causes may include brain chemistry, genetics, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and stressful or disturbing events in one’s life.

Can bipolar disorders be treated? How?

Bipolar illness is treated in two ways: (a) treating the immediate manic or depressive episode, and (b) continued maintenance to prevent or reduce further episodes.

Bipolar disorder can be treated. There is hope. People with bipolar disorder can be helped by treatment. Treatment can include:

  • Medication

  • Counseling

  • Peer Support

  • Complementary Care such as exercise, stress reduction classes and other activities

If you think that you or someone you know has bipolar disorder, talk with your primary care provider or Student Health Services. Only a mental health professional can tell if a person has bipolar disorder and properly treat it. Once in treatment, it is important that the person receive the support and understanding of friends and family.

How does a bipolar disorder progress?

Bipolar disorder affects persons clinically, functionally, and financially. Multiple episodes (4 or more in a lifetime) are the rule, although there is no typical pattern to episode recurrence. Manic and depressive episodes can last from 4 to 13 months, with depressive episodes typically lasting longer. Most often bipolar illness continues throughout a person’s lifetime.

Do people with bipolar disorder get better?

For many individuals with bipolar disorder a good prognosis results from good treatment, which, in turn, results from an accurate diagnosis. Because bipolar disorder can have a high rate of both under-diagnosis and misdiagnosis, it is often difficult for individuals with the condition to receive timely and competent treatment.

Bipolar disorder can be a severely disabling medical condition. However, many individuals with bipolar disorder can live full and satisfying lives. Quite often, medication is needed to enable this. Persons with bipolar disorder may have periods of normal or near normal functioning between episodes.

Teaching patients coping strategies when noticing symptoms has shown encouraging results.

Bipolar disorder can cause suicidal ideation that leads to suicidal attempts. One out of three people with bipolar disorder report past attempts of suicide or complete it, and the annual average suicide rate is 10 to 20 times that of the general population

Bipolar disorder can be severe and long-term, or it can be mild with infrequent episodes. Patients with the disease may experience symptoms in very different ways. A typical patient with bipolar disorder averages 8 - 10 manic or depressive episodes over a lifetime. However, some people experience more and some fewer episodes.

Sources and Links

  • If you were in physical pain, you’d see a doctor to find out what’s wrong. Your mental health is just as important. Learn more here about how to check yourself, from getting a mental health screening to visiting a counseling center. You can use the anonymous Self Evaluator to learn if a treatable mental health problem, including bipolar disorder, could be affecting you or a friend. Be proactive about your mental health: it’s the first step to feeling better. Take the Self Evaluator

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness - Bipolar Fact Sheet

  • Mental Health America - Bipolar Disorder Information

  • Altman Self-Rating Mania Scale.
    Use this brief online scale to help you determine if you may need to see a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment of mania and/or bipolar illness.

  • The United States National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) mission is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care. They do that by advancing the science and practice of symptom management; developing effective, practical, personalized strategies for promoting health and well-being; and enabling better evidence-based decision making regarding CAM use and its integration into health care and health promotion. Information available about complementary and alternative treatments for bipolar disorders.