Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder may be one of the least understood and most stigmatized mental health disorders. Understanding the truth about bipolar disorder is essential for the well-being of those who live with this disorder.

You will often hear people use the term “bipolar” to describe someone who is moody. Experiencing regular shifts in mood does not mean you have bipolar disorder. This type of mischaracterization can make it difficult for people who actually have the disorder to receive the compassionate care they deserve. In bipolar disorder, the individual experiences long and very intense periods of depression and mania that far outpace regular mood swings others might have.

Bipolar is a serious mental health issue and can lead to death, in some cases. Understanding the truth about this disorder is vital to the well-being of bipolar patients.

Cyclothymic Disorder

To begin, it is important to understand a related but separate disorder known as cyclothymic disorder. In cyclothymic disorder, the patient also experiences stages of depression and mania, but they are less intense and briefer than those in bipolar disorder. They also do not occur as often and the shifts between the two stages are not as “steep.” Nonetheless, treatment for cyclothymic disorder runs along the same lines as treatment for bipolar disorder.

Bipolar 1 & Bipolar 2

There are two forms of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II.

In Bipolar I, patients go through a stage of mania that is at least one week long and a stage of depression that is at least two weeks long. Sometimes when these periods are shorter but so intense that they require hospitalization, the patient may still receive a diagnosis of bipolar I.

In Bipolar II, the mania is less intense but the depression is just as profound as in bipolar I. The shifts from mania to depression are as steep as in bipolar I, as well. Bipolar II patients require the same level of compassion and intervention as Bipolar I patients.

The Symptoms

In bipolar disorder, the individual experiences mania so intense that they care about the day to day necessities in life. The person may stop going to work, may ignore loved ones, and even stop paying bills. This stage can also come with dangerously impulsive behavior involving extreme risk taking.

After the stage of mania, the patient then plummets down into a deep stage of depression. This stage can come with suicidal thinking, which makes this stage just as dangerous for the patient as the manic stage.

Symptoms of Mania

  • Excessive energy
  • Feeling elated
  • Inability to sleep or relax
  • Increased irritability
  • Racing thoughts
  • Excessive risk taking

Depressive Symptoms

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Little to no energy
  • Disordered sleeping
  • Disordered eating
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling empty and detached from others
  • Avoidant behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts

How Do You Test for Bipolar Disorder?

There is no physical test or blood test that can identify the presence of bipolar disorder. Diagnosing the condition takes observation and assessment by a mental health professional in clinical sessions.

The process often begins with the therapist interviewing the patient with the goal of building a mental health history. The therapist may also ask the patient to answer some scales, surveys, and questionnaires. Answering these questions can put some strain on the patient, but the process is kept as stress-free as possible with the patient taking breaks when needed.

Identifying Comorbid Conditions

Sometimes, the mental health professional will also run a differential diagnosis during the diagnostic process. This is done to rule out other conditions, but also to identify any comorbid disorders that might be present. Disorders that a bipolar patient might also have include addiction and psychosis.

Treatment Options for Bipolar Disorder

As with many mental health disorders, treatment for bipolar disorder often includes therapy and medication. When a patient has very severe or dangerous symptoms, inpatient treatment may also be part of the treatment process.

Therapy for Bipolar Disorder

Therapy for bipolar disorder often involves Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT. This talk therapy helps the patient develop better coping mechanisms. Patients can also benefit from Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT) which focuses on how a patient’s biology, relationships, and moods work together.

A patient’s family may also want to take part in some form of therapy. This can give them a way to build the skills they need to support the patient.

Medication Options

Therapy is not typically enough when treating bipolar disorder. Oftentimes, a psychiatrist will need to prescribe medications. Common medications used include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antipsychotics
  • Sleep aids

Sleep aids are important because they can help the patient get the rest needed to be as healthy as possible during the treatment process.

Additional Bipolar Treatment Options

On occasion, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) may be necessary for a bipolar patient. Since ECT comes with serious side effects, it should only be used when its benefits outweigh its risks.

How Common is Bipolar Disorder?

According to experts, 2.6 percent of adults in the US have bipolar disorder. Rates of occurrence in children and adolescents are much more difficult to define. Some estimates state that 750,000 children in the U.S. have the disorder, but mental health professionals have not reached a consensus on how to diagnose bipolar disorder in children.

Risk Factors

There may be a genetic component to bipolar disorder. It does run in families, and a gene variant may make people more at risk of developing the condition. While there may be a genetic risk factor, people without any family history of the disorder can still develop it.