What is bipolar disorder?

Everyone has times when they experience changes in their moods, such as happiness, sadness or anger. These changes are normally a response to changing events and are part of everyday living. However, in bipolar disorder the mood changes are out of proportion, or totally unrelated, to the events.

Manic or depressive episodes can be experienced in bipolar disorder, which is why the condition is sometimes called manic-depressive illness.

The manic episode may include feelings of euphoria, increased energy, decreased need for sleep, fast talking, jumping from one idea to another, irritability, aggression and the inability to make sound judgments.

The depressive episode includes a feeling of sadness, hopelessness, decreased energy and a need to sleep. Appetite will be lost and suicidal thoughts may be experienced.

In bipolar disorder, the person will swing between these moods.

How do you get bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects about 3-4% of adults during their lifetime. Symptoms normally appear during adolescence or early adulthood and tend to reappear throughout their lifetime.

The cause of bipolar disorder is not known, but it is thought to involve many different factors.

It may be partly hereditary; in other words the genes that we inherit might have a contributory role.

It may be a result of abnormalities in the way some nerve cells in the brain function with an imbalance in the chemicals that the brain uses to send messages from one cell to another. This results in the person being more vulnerable to emotional and physical stresses.

How serious is bipolar disorder?

It is an enduring, recurring mental condition which can often be of a severe nature. Therefore, the disease requires active management.

The mood swings can make normal relationships difficult to maintain and can affect all aspects of life.

How long does bipolar disorder last?

As mentioned above, bipolar disorder can be an enduring or recurring condition and is a lifelong illness.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

There are many treatments available for bipolar disorder, including counselling and medicines, but the first step is always to see a doctor who can accurately diagnose the condition. While general practitioners (family doctors) can sometimes diagnose bipolar disorder, it is preferable that patients exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Most patients require the simultaneous use of a combination of medicines to treat not only mood symptoms but also to prevent switching from periods of mania to periods of depression, or vice versa (mood swings). These medications in combination are designed to alleviate depression, control the symptoms of mania and prevent mood swings.