The Basics of Bipolar Disorder

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that bipolar disorder is “a serious mental illness,” that’s characterized by significant mood changes. Someone with this disorder can go from feeling very happy to extremely sad and depressed without obvious causation or logical reason. They may swing back and forth between these states of mania and depression, with each phase being less or more severe than others.

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that there are actually four types of bipolar disorder.

  • Bipolar I disorder involves manic episodes that last a week or more, or episodes so severe that the person is a danger to themselves or others and requires inpatient treatment.
  • Bipolar II disorder is characterized by episodes of depression alternating with hypomanic episodes. Hypomanic episodes are periods where mania is present but not as severe.
  • Cyclothymic disorder includes periods of depression and hypomania that don’t fit diagnostic requirements for Bipolar I or II disorder. These symptoms must have been present for one year in children and two years in adults for a cyclothymia diagnosis.
  • Other specified or unspecified bipolar and related disorders is the diagnosis given when bipolar symptoms are present, but the scenario doesn’t fall into the diagnostic criteria for one of the disorders listed above.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health notes that experts don’t fully understand the causation behind bipolar disorder. Studies of the disorder have indicated some potential risk factors and causes, but no one is 100% certain how these factors might work together.

Biology may play a role. This is a disorder of the brain, and how the brain functions, or even how it’s shaped may play a role in whether someone has bipolar disorder. The same is true for brain chemistry; when the chemicals that are responsible for mood and behavior are out of balance, it might lead to bipolar disorder.

There is also some evidence that genetics are at play because someone who has an immediate family member with the condition is more likely to be diagnosed with it themselves. Around two-thirds of people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder have an immediate or close relative who is dealing with the same disorder or another depression disorder.

Stress, physical illness, and environmental factors can also contribute to whether or not someone has the disorder or how severe it might be, according to the Victoria State Government Better Health Channel.

Stats and Facts About Bipolar Disorder

According to the NIMH, just over 4% of people in the United States have dealt with bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime. The disorder impacts roughly 2.8% of adults each year, with the largest impact on people aged 18 to 29. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance puts that in perspective by noting that around 5.7 million people in America battle this mental health issue each year.

When it comes to adolescents, bipolar prevalence is around 2.9%. While adult men and women tend to experience bipolar disorder in equal numbers, female adolescents are slightly more likely to present with the disorder than their male counterparts. Despite the fact that bipolar disorder can impact teens of any age — and even some children — it’s more likely among teens age 17 to 18.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bipolar disorder leads to around half a million emergency room visits annually for those aged 15 and older, with people aged 15 to 24 accounting for the highest number of visits.

Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Extreme moods of either a depressive or manic nature, especially when they last for several weeks and alternate, are typically the main signs of bipolar disorder. These moods can alternate with periods of normalcy where the person is neither manic nor depressed.

Manic episodes range in severity, but they are characterized by some or all of the symptoms below.

  • Euphoria, extreme happiness, or elation
  • Restlessness, especially when it makes someone jumpy
  • Fast speech that may jump quickly from topic to topic
  • Increased energy and/or activity levels
  • Not being able to sleep as normal
  • Being irritable or agitated
  • Trying to accomplish many things at the same time
  • Feeling as if thoughts are racing
  • Engaging in risky behavior

Depressive episodes can also range when it comes to severity and how long they last. Some common symptoms of depressive episodes can include:

  • Feeling empty, sad, or as if you’re in a void
  • Lethargy or feeling like you’re slowed down
  • Decreased energy or activity levels
  • Changes in sleep that can include problems sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Not enjoying activities that normally interest you
  • Cognitive troubles, including problems focusing or remembering things
  • Changes in eating, including over or under eating

Since these symptoms can also be symptoms of other mental or physical health conditions, it’s important to see a medical health professional if you’re experiencing any of these issues. Your doctor can help you find the right professionals to ensure you’re properly diagnosed so you can get the treatment that lets you live better with bipolar disorder, or deal with any other issues you might be facing.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, like many other mental health conditions, is not “curable.” However, with the right treatment and management of this disorder, people can live in remission for years and enjoy a long and otherwise healthy life. Remission means that you aren’t experiencing any symptoms of the disorder.

How bipolar disorder is treated depends on the person, the severity of the manic or depressive episodes, and any co-occurring diagnoses. Co-occurring diagnoses are mental or physical health conditions you’re dealing with at the same time.

In cases where someone is presenting with such severe mania or depression that they are a risk to themselves or others, professionals might recommend inpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment is also an option, either as a step-down from inpatient or as the starting point for someone who needs to learn more about their illness and how to control it.

Whether healthcare professionals recommend a stay in the hospital or think someone with bipolar disorder can best manage by checking in with a clinician regularly, the following methods are commonly employed for treatment.

  • Therapy (including individual, group, or family therapy): This helps the person learn about their disorder, understand triggers for manic or depressive episodes, and develop healthier coping skills for addressing aspects of the disorder.
  • Medication: This can be used to treat underlying chemical imbalances that might be leading to bipolar disorder symptoms and reduce the impact of manic or depressive episodes.
  • Changes in lifestyle: Approaches that include healthy eating and exercise, educating oneself about mental health, engaging in positive activities, meditation, and even faith can all help someone live well with bipolar disorder. However, these are typically considered complementary to therapy and medication, not replacements for critical treatments.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

  • The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s HealthFinder tool offers a number of helpful links to resources about bipolar disorder and other mental health issues.
  • The CDC provides a page listing hotlines and links for people who are in need of assistance now or who have questions about mental health disorders.
  • The NIMH provides a free ebook you can download on bipolar disorder.
  • The DBSA provides a free wellness calendar download that helps you track how well you’re managing your mental health disorder. You can also find a range of other personal wellness tools from the DBSA.

This guide is for informational purposes only. Nothing in this guide is meant to act as medical advice, and it is not prescriptive in nature. It’s only meant to provide general education on bipolar disorder for those looking for more information. If you believe you or someone you love is dealing with a mental health disorder, reach out to your doctor or another mental health professional for assistance and recommendations on the best next steps.