Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depression, is a chronic condition involving extreme mood swings. Individuals with bipolar disorder typically have alternating periods of mania and depression; however, some individuals have manic episodes only, hypomanic (less severe) episodes, or mixed periods with symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time.

A manic episode is typically a period of a week or longer with an abnormally high (euphoric) or irritable mood, and three or more of the following:

  • grandiosity (i.e., believing that one is special or important)
  • racing thoughts or “flight of ideas” (i.e., jumping rapidly from one topic to the next)
  • reduced need for sleep
  • talking much more than usual
  • becoming distracted very easily
  • increased energy or activity
  • activities involving poor judgment or high risk (e.g., spending sprees, reckless driving)

These symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with daily functioning, and they must not be caused by drug use. Symptoms generally come on rather suddenly (within a few days) and involve a marked change from one’s usual personality.

This disorder affects about one percent of the population directly; however, family members are often affected indirectly by the extreme behaviors that can occur during a manic episode (e.g., excessive spending, rash decisions, promiscuity). Individuals with bipolar disorder can also act impulsively when depressed, and anyone appearing hopeless or suicidal should be referred for professional help immediately.

Genetics may contribute to bipolar disorder, and stressful life events may trigger episodes of mania and depression. However, while the causes of the disorder are not known for certain, effective treatments are well established. Treatment typically involves medication to stabilize moods, as well as therapy to learn how to cope with the condition. Unfortunately, many individuals with bipolar disorder avoid treatment or stop taking medication, putting themselves at risk for relapse. However, when treatment begins early and continues consistently, the outcome may be very positive; there are many people with bipolar disorder who have become highly successful in the arts, politics, medicine, and other fields.