What is Bipolar Disorder?

What is Bipolar Disorder?

“Bipolar disorder can be a great teacher. It’s a challenge, but it can set you up to be able to do almost anything else in your life.” –Carrie Fisher, American Actress and Writer

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 5.7 million adult Americans are affected by bipolar disorder. This equates to an estimated 2.6 percent of the United States population.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world. Moreover, studies performed by the WHO show that one in five people who suffer bipolar disorder will commit suicide. For others, the disease causes a 9.2 year reduction in life span.

Bipolar disorder frequently develops during late teens or early adult years. According to the NIMH, at least half of all cases begin prior to the age of 25. Some people also experience their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.

Bipolar disorder, however, is a disease that entails more than mere numbers and statistics. Also known as manic-depressive illness, it is explained by the NIMH as a chronic brain disease that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to perform daily tasks. Health care professionals describe bipolar disorder as a serious and complex mental illness that can lead to damaged relationships, careers and lives if left untreated.

Persons Who Have Bipolar Disorder

Mood swings that range from the intense lows of depression to the exuberant highs of mania are prevalent with bipolar disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. When a person experiences depression, he or she may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. Conversely, a person may feel euphoric and full of energy when his or her mood changes.

Some mood shifts occur only several times a year, while others take place as often as several times each day. “There’s a whole spectrum of symptoms and mood changes that have been found in bipolar disorder,” states Michael Aronson, MD, clinical psychiatrist and consultant. “It’s not always dramatic mood swings. In fact, some people seem to get along just fine. The manic periods can be very, very productive. They think things are going great.”

According to researchers, characteristics of a person in a “manic” mood include feeling restless, powerful or energetic, engaging in reckless behaviors and being very talkative. At some point, this exhilaration can then spiral into something more painful. Irritation, confusion and anger often ensue. “Depressive” moods, therefore, are characterized by crying, a sense of worthlessness, loss of energy, loss of pleasure and sleep problems.

Hidden Dangers of Bipolar Disorder

While the depression that results from bipolar disorder is associated with a host of dangers, including suicidal tendencies, the mania also can be harmful. “The [mood] change can be very dramatic, with catastrophic results,” explains Dr. Aronson. “People can get involved in reckless behavior, spend a lot of money, there may be sexual promiscuity, sexual risks.”

According to the NIMH, bipolar disorder poses further danger because it is a difficult disease to diagnose. As the patterns of highs and lows vary for each patient, doctors often have trouble pinpointing it. The symptoms may thus seem like separate problems, not recognized as parts of a larger problem. Some people, subsequently, suffer for years before they receive proper diagnosis and treatment.

Bipolar disease is equally difficult for friends and family members to recognize. According to Dr. Aronson, the disease often “seems more like bad behavior, like they [the patient] won’t straighten up.” Thus, the havoc created by bipolar disorder often tears rifts through families who do not understand how this disease works. As a result, treatment frequently includes family counseling and support from community groups.






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