What you and your family need to know about bipolar disorder



If a friend or family member deals with bipolar disorder, find out all you can to understand the ups and downs and know what is helpful and what is not. ©Thinkstock

What do the following people have in common: artist Michelangelo, mathematician Isaac Newton, painter Vincent van Gogh, politician Winston Churchill, novelist Virginia Woolf, President Abraham Lincoln and composer George Frideric Handel?

They all suffered from extreme mood swings and breakdowns throughout their lives. If they had today’s scientific and medical knowledge, each of them might have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Yet, in spite of their emotional struggles, they were able to access their potential and live highly productive lives. Yet, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder creates anxiety and concern for an individual and his or her family. If you or someone you know has bipolar disorder, here are some frequently asked questions to help you understand and manage the condition.

Bipolar is a brain disorder, which causes extreme shifts of mood, energy and activity levels. Psychologist Dean A. Haycock, Ph.D., says a person with bipolar disorder experiences moods which “fluctuate widely and uncontrollably” causing the individual to move from “depression to mania (periods of great excitement, euphoria, delusions and over activity), from spirit-crushing and potentially life-threatening lows to dangerous highs.” Dr. Haycock adds, “These extreme fluctuations have a negative impact on a person’s energy level, thoughts, behavior and ability to function.” Although not curable, bipolar disorder can be controlled with treatment.

The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) estimates approximately 5.7 million adults deal with this condition in the U.S. Of those, half are over 25 years of age when the disease is diagnosed. Bipolar also impacts the lives of people around them: parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, children, grand children, friends and work colleagues.

While there is currently no cure for bipolar disorder, there are a variety of effective treatments.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Symptoms are divided according to the manic phase and the depressive phase. According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder can include:

Manic phase:
euphoria; inflated self-esteem; poor judgment; rapid speech; racing thoughts; aggressive behavior; agitation or irritation; increased physical activity; risky behavior; spending sprees or unwise financial choices; increased drive to perform or achieve goals; increased sex drive; decreased need for sleep; careless or dangerous use of drugs or alcohol; frequent absences and poor performance at work or school; delusions or a break from reality (psychosis).

Depressive phase: sadness; hopelessness; suicidal thoughts or behavior; anxiety; guilt; sleep problems; low appetite or increased appetite; fatigue; loss of interest in activities once considered enjoyable; irritability; chronic pain without a known cause; frequent absences and poor performance at work or school.

What causes bipolar disorder?
The cause of bipolar disorder is not yet known but one view holds there may be a genetic vulnerability because the condition runs within families. If one parent has bipolar but the other parent does not, there is a 7.8 percent risk of a child developing the condition. However, if both parents have a history of bipolar disorder there is a 50 to 75 percent likelihood of their child developing a mood disorder. Another theory suggests it comes as a result of an underlying defect in brain chemistry. This may be triggered by environmental or lifestyle factors such as high stress, drug or alcohol abuse. Today, researchers are working hard to predict and prevent this illness.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?
This begins when an individual or their close family members suspect professional assistance is needed. Candida Fink, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in bipolar disorder says the process for obtaining an accurate diagnosis includes an appointment with a family physician to help rule out other causes. “Health issues, such as thyroid malfunction, menopause or nutritional deficiencies can cause symptoms similar to those of bipolar disorder. Medications and other substances can also generate similar symptoms,” Dr. Fink notes.

Secondly, the family physician may advise undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, who then may offer a treatment plan.

How is bipolar disorder treated?
While there is currently no cure for bipolar disorder, there are a variety of effective treatments. “A treatment plan almost always prescribes medications designed to treat your current state (Manic, depressed, mixed) and to prevent further cycles,” says Dr. Fink. This often includes the mixing of a bipolar cocktail. “Psychiatrists often prescribe multiple medications to treat all symptoms and to improve the drugs’ overall effectiveness,” Dr. Fink adds.

If a bipolar person is feeling well can he or she go off medications?
This is highly inadvisable. However, the temptation to quit taking medication is great for two reasons: first, because symptoms have eased and, secondly, because the side effects are unpleasant. Specialists in bipolar disorder advise against “tweaking” or modifying one’s prescriptions and strongly suggest the patient first consult with their psychiatrist who may make a minor adjustment. Ongoing counseling is a powerful companion to medication for helping bipolar people manage their lives.

Is a bipolar person more likely to try suicide than a non-bipolar person?
Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’. According to Dr. Charles Atkins, author of “The Bipolar Disorder Answer Book.” “Between 10 and 20 percent of people with bipolar disorder will end their lives by suicide (some reports put this figure much higher, at 40 or 50 percent).” He adds that nearly one percent of people with bipolar disorder end their lives by suicide each year “or thirty to sixty times the rate of suicide in the general population.” Therefore, it is critical for family members and friends to act promptly if/when there is any suicidal expression from a bipolar person. “Thinking of suicide is a medical emergency that needs immediate attention,” says Dr. Atkins.

Is there hope for a person with bipolar disorder?
“Absolutely,” says Dr. Burges “With successful treatment, people with bipolar disorder are healthy and can achieve the kind of life they want and deserve. For the first time in history, we have a broad choice of effective treatments for bipolar disorder,” he adds. For patients and their families, it is important to maintain a positive attitude refusing to permit bipolar disorder to keep a person from developing personally or professionally.

Today many prominent people have come out publicly about being bipolar including actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, television journalist Jane Pauley, actress Linda Hamilton who starred in two “Terminator” movies, and Carrie Fisher, who portrayed Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder does not mean the end of a productive, fulfilling life.

GEOFF WEATHERHEAD is an educator and writer from the Midwest.

Resources for understanding and managing bipolar disorder

“When Someone You Love is Bipolar: Help and Support For You And Your Partner” by Cynthia G. Last, Ph.D.
“New Hope For People With Bipolar Disorder” by Jan Fawcett, M.D., Bernard Golden, Ph.D., and Nancy Rosenfeld.
“The Everything Health Guide To Adult Bipolar Disorder: A Reassuring Guide For Patients And Families” by Dean A. Haycock, Ph.D.
“The Bipolar Disorder Answer Book: Professional Answers To More Than 275 Top Questions” by Charles Atkins, M.D.

Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness, www.ShadowVoices.com

Internet Resources:
National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml


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