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Did you know?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is a treatable brain disorder in which one may experience unusual shifts in mood, ranging from excessively “high”, happy and/or irritable to sad and hopeless. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression. Different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through, the symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe and can interupt school, work, personal relationships, basic daily functioning, and can impair quality of life.

Why Talk with College Students about Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. It may also develop in childhood or later in life, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. About 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6% of the population age 18 and older have bipolar disorder.

A Day, A Week, A Month, A Year, A Life with Bipolar Disorder

Admittedly, we all may occasionally experience some of the symptoms listed below; however, to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, three or more of the following manic symptoms must be present most of the day, nearly every day, for 1 week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present. Signs and symptoms of mania (or a manic episode) include:

  • Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
  • Excessively “high”, overly good, euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another
  • Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
  • Little sleep needed
  • Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
  • Poor judgment
  • Spending sprees
  • A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
  • Increased sexual drive, including engaging in sexual behavior when one normally wouldn’t
  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications
  • Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong

Similarly, we all will have days when we feel down; however a depressive bipolar episode is diagnosed only if five or more of these symptoms last most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of 2 weeks or longer. Signs and symptoms of depression (or a depressive episode) include:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss or gain
  • Chronic pain or other persistent bodily symptoms that are not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

Episodes of mania and depression typically recur across the life span. Fortunately, when treated properly, most people experience periods in which they are free of episodes or symptoms. However, as many as 1/3 of people have some residual symptoms.

Rapid-cycling bipolar disorder is defined as having four or more episodes of illness occur within a 12-month period. Some people experience multiple episodes within a single week, or even within a single day. Rapid cycling tends to develop later in the course of illness and is more common among women than among men.

The Importance of Treatment

Proper treatment of bipolar disorder can help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes and can help people with bipolar disorder maintain good quality of life. Currently recommendations suggest treating bipolar disorder throughout a person’s lifetime with a combination of (1) medicine and (2) “talk” therapy.

Without treatment, the natural course of bipolar disorder tends to worsen. Over time a person may suffer more frequent (more rapid-cycling) and more severe manic and depressive episodes than those experienced when the illness first appeared. Medications called “mood stabilizers” will help control your manic and depressive episodes. “Talk therapy” with a psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse practitioner or counselor will help you learn to change how bipolar disorder makes you think, feel, and act.

Bipolar Disorder and Suicide

Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal. Anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or a physician. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. Risk for suicide appears to be higher earlier in the course of the illness. Therefore, recognizing bipolar disorder early and learning how best to manage it may decrease the risk of death by suicide.

Help Yourself

  • Educate yourself about your illness. If you have bipolar disorder, you should know what to expect.
  • Stay on treatment, even when you are feeling well, to help keep the disease under control and reduce the chance of having recurrent, worsening episodes.
  • Keep your psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner informed about how you are feeling. If you are not feeling better, you may need to try different medicines to find out what works best for you.
  • When the disorder is under good control, establish a course of action with family or friends to prepare for the possibility of a future relapse to a manic or depressive episode. Some individuals with bipolar disorder may agree on a plan that will help themselves and everyone involved best cope with relapse.
  • Joining a support group for people with bipolar disorder may help you cope living with this illness, its unpredictability, and the effect it may have on your loved ones.

Help a Friend

  • Educate yourself. Bipolar disorder is a complicated illness and you will have many questions after your loved one is diagnosed.
  • Strongly encourage your loved one to seek treatment. Sometimes you may need to take the person with bipolar disorder for proper mental health evaluation and treatment. Family physicians can also play an important role in providing referral to a mental health professional.
  • Continue to encourage and support your loved one after he or she obtains treatment, for it may take a while to find the best treatment plan for each individual.
  • Be ready for the unexpected. Often people with bipolar disorder do not realize how impaired they are, or they blame their problems on some cause other than mental illness. A person who is in the midst of a severe episode may need to be hospitalized for his or her own safety and for much-needed treatment. There may be times when the person must be hospitalized against his or her wishes.
  • When the disorder is under good control, establish a course of action with your loved one to prepare for the possibility of a future relapse to a manic or depressive episode. Some individuals with bipolar disorder may agree ona plan that will help themselves and everyone involved best cope with relapse.
  • Joining a support group may help you cope with your loved one’s sometimes serious behavioral problems, such as spending sprees during mania or extreme withdrawal from others during depression, and the lasting consequences of those behaviors.