Bipolar Disorder

Mental Illness

What is Bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder (also known as maniac depression) causes severe shifts in mood, energy, thinking and behavior - from the height of mania on one extreme, to the low of depression on the other. These shifts can last for days, week or months and are so intense they can interfere with the ability to function. The cause of bipolar disorder is not completely understood, although it appears to be hereditary.

Signs and Symptoms

Bipolar disorder is commonly misdiagnosed as depression since most people with bipolar disorder seek help when they’re in the depressive stage of the illness. When they’re in the manic stage, they don’t recognize the problem. Most people with bipolar disorder are depressed a much greater percentage of the time than they are manic or hypomanic. Being misdiagnosed with depression is a potentially dangerous problem because the treatment for bipolar depression is different than for regular depression. In fact, antidepressants can actually make bipolar disorder worse.

Indicators that your depression is really bipolar disorder

  • You’ve experienced repeated episodes of major depression
  • You had your first episode of major depression before age 25
  • You have a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder
  • When you’re not depressed, your mood and energy levels are higher than most people’s
  • When you’re depressed, you oversleep and overeat
  • Your episodes of major depression are short (less than 3 months)
  • You’ve lost contact with reality while depressed
  • You’ve had postpartum depression before
  • You’ve developed mania or hypomania while taking an antidepressant
  • Your antidepressant stopped working after several months
  • You’ve tried 3 or more antidepressants without success

Types of Bipolar Disorder

  • Bipolar I disorder involves periods of severe mood episodes from mania to depression.
  • Bipolar II disorder is a milder form of mood elevation, involving milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with periods of severe depression.
  • Cyclothymia is a milder form of bipolar disorder. Like bipolar disorder, it consists of cyclical mood swings. However, the highs and lows are not severe enough to qualify as either mania or major depression.
  • Mixed features refers to the occurrence of simultaneous symptoms of opposite mood polarities during manic, hypomanic or depressive episodes. It's marked by high energy, sleeplessness, and racing thoughts. At the same time, the person may feel hopeless, despairing, irritable, and suicidal.
  • Rapid-cycling is a term that describes having four or more mood episodes within a 12-month period. Episodes must last for some minimum number of days in order to be considered distinct episodes.

What puts people at risk of Bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally, as well as all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. Although men and women appear to be equally affected by bipolar disorder, rapid cycling is seen more often in women. Women also tend to experience more depressive and mixed state episodes than do men. A man's first experience with bipolar disorder may be in a manic state; women tend to first experience a depressive state. Bipolar disorder can present itself at any age, but typically, onset occurs around age 25.

People are sometimes diagnosed with bipolar following a stressful or traumatic event in their lives. These environmental triggers can include seasonal changes, holidays, and major life changes such as starting a new job, losing a job, going to college, family disagreements, marriage, or a death in the family. Lack of sleep increases the risk of having an episode of mania in someone with bipolar disorder. In addition, antidepressants, particularly when taken as the only medication, may also trigger a switch into a manic state. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs can also trigger bipolar symptoms.