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General Health >> Mental Health >> Bipolar Disorder

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Bipolar Disorder




What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a neurological disorder that causes the unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to function. In contrast to the normal fluctuations of emotions, a person with bipolar disorder will experience severe mood swings. Bipolar disorder affects a person's relationships, work and school. In some cases, bipolar disorder has led to suicide. Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness; like diabetes or heart disease, it must be carefully managed throughout a person's life. Fortunately, bipolar disorder is treatable and people can continue to live full and productive lives.

Is it common?
Bipolar disorders usually develop in late adolescent to early adult years; however, they can develop in childhood or later in life. Every year, approximately 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6 percent of the population age 18 and older are diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

What are the symptoms?
Bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings. Severe changes in behavior and energy accompany the fluctuating moods; these moods are often referred to as "episodes" of mania and depression. Episodes of mania and depression typically recur across the life span. Between episodes, most people with bipolar disorder are free of symptoms, but as many as one-third of people have some residual symptoms.

In a manic episode, you might experience:

  • Increased energy, activity and restlessness

  • Euphoric mood

  • Extreme irritability

  • Racing thoughts, talking very fast

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Very little sleep necessary

  • 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

  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol and sleeping medications

  • Provocative, intrusive or aggressive behavior

  • Denial that anything is wrong

In a depressive episode, you might experience:

  • Sad or anxious mood

  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed

  • Decreased energy

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions

  • Restlessness or irritability

  • Sleeping too much or inability to sleep

  • Change in appetite

  • Unintended weight loss or gain

  • Chronic pain or other persistent bodily symptoms not caused by physical illness or injury

  • Thoughts of death, suicide

  • Suicide attempts

It may help to think of the mood swings in bipolar disorder as a spectrum or continuous range. At one end is severe depression, above which is moderate depression followed by a mild low mood, which many people call the "blues" when it is short-lived but is termed "dysthymia" when it is chronic. Next is the normal or balanced mood, above which is hypomania (mild to moderate mania), followed by severe mania.

For more information about the symptoms of bipolar disorder, you can visit the National Institute of Mental Health.

When should I seek help?
If you are able to recognize that any of the above symptoms are occurring on a regular basis in your life or are increasing in their frequency and severity, you should seek help. At Texas State, you can visit the Student Health Center and a medical professional can help to determine whether you should seek additional help. You can also contact the Counseling Center in order to receive recommendations or a referral.

How do I help a friend who has bipolar disorder?
A person with bipolar disorder is likely to argue that they do not have a problem. If you recognize that your friend has frequent and extreme mood swings, you may need to help them find help. The following suggestions may help:

  • A person with bipolar disorder may need strong encouragement from family and friends to seek treatment. Family physicians can play an important role in providing a referral to a mental health professional.

  • Sometimes a family member or friend may need to take the person with bipolar disorder for proper mental health evaluation and treatment.

  • A person who is in the midst of a severe episode may need to be hospitalized for their own protection and for needed treatment. There may be times when the person must be hospitalized against their wishes.

  • Ongoing encouragement and support are needed after a person obtains treatment because it takes time to find the best treatment plan for each individual.

  • In some cases, individuals with bipolar disorder may agree, when they have the disorder under control, to a preferred course of action in the event of a future manic or depressive relapse.

  • Like other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder is difficult for spouses, family members, friends and employers.

  • Family members of someone with bipolar disorder often have to cope with the person's serious behavioral problems, such as wild spending sprees during mania or extreme withdrawal from others during depression, as well as the lasting consequences of these behaviors.

  • Many people with bipolar disorder benefit from joining support groups such as those sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). Families and friends can also benefit from support groups offered by these organizations.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?
Bipolar disorder cannot yet be identified physiologically. For example, a blood test or a brain scan will not reveal that a person has the illness. Thus, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made on the basis of symptoms, course of illness and, when available, family history.

How is bipolar disorder treated?
First, manic and depressive episodes will be diagnosed. In the case of mania, a manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the other symptoms most of the day, nearly every day or for one week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present. A depressive episode is diagnosed if five or more of the symptoms last most of the day, nearly every day or for a period of two weeks or longer.

Because bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, long-term preventive treatment is strongly recommended and almost always indicated. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.

Medications for bipolar disorder are prescribed by psychiatrists, medical doctors with expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. While primary care physicians can prescribe these medications, it is recommended that people with bipolar disorder see a psychiatrist for treatment.

Medications known as "mood stabilizers" usually are prescribed to help control bipolar disorder. Several types of mood stabilizers are available. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for extended periods of time . Other medications are added when necessary, typically for shorter periods, to treat episodes of mania or depression that occur despite the mood stabilizer.

In addition to medication, psychosocial treatments, including forms of psychotherapy, provide support, education and guidance for people with bipolar disorder and their families. Studies have shown that psychosocial interventions can lead to increased mood stability, fewer hospitalizations and improved functioning. A licensed psychologist, social worker or counselor often provides psychosocial treatments and will work with the psychiatrist to monitor a patient's progress. The number, frequency and type of sessions are based on the needs of each person.

Psychosocial interventions commonly used for bipolar disorder are cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, family therapy and a newer technique, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy. For more information about these therapies and medication, you can visit the National Institute of Mental Health.

Links you can use
Health Education Resource Center (512) 245-2309
Walk-ins and appointments are welcome to obtain confidential answers to health questions. Located in suite 201 of the Student Health Center at the corner of Sessom and Tomas Rivera Drive.

Student Health Center (512) 245-2167
Located at the corner of Sessom and Tomas Rivera Streets.
Confidential information and care is available by appointment with a physician or nurse. There are no fees for medical care at the Student Health Center. However, there may be fees incurred if laboratory tests, medications, specialist or emergency hospital care is needed.

Counseling Center (512) 245-2208
Located on the fifth floor of the LBJ Student Center.
Confidential counseling appointments are available for students. Services include crisis intervention, short-term psychotherapy and referrals. There are no fees for appointments.

National Institute of Mental Health
This site provides in depth coverage about bipolar disorder and seeking treatment.
This site offers a questionnaire, tips about recognizing bipolar disorder and resources for people with bipolar disorder and their friends and families.

Bipolar Help Center
At this site, you will find stories, a frequently-asked-questions section and links to mental health agencies and advocacy and support groups.

Health Centers Online
This site offers information about bipolar disorder in several age groups, including children, as well as information about different types of mood disorders.

WebMD not only offers general information about bipolar disorder, but also provides tips for daily coping and helping a loved one.


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Last Modified: September 7, 2006