Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition in which a person experiences both extremes or “poles” of feelings–mania and depression–in ways that often cause great pain and suffering for the individual, as well as for those who care about them. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, is characterized by wide extreme mood swings from severe highs (mania) followed by episodes of distinct lows (depression) and is most often a chronic condition. Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual. The length of an episode varies from person to person, but each one generally lasts for several weeks. Episodes may be longer at the onset of the illness before treatment has begun. Bipolar disorder usually emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood. At any given time, more than 2 million people in the United States suffer from bipolar disorder.

When one member of a family has bipolar disorder, their condition affects everyone else in the family. When episodes occur, they often feel confused, alienated and helpless. During manic phases, family and friends may watch in disbelief as their loved one transforms into a person they do not know and cannot communicate with. During episodes of depression, everyone can become frustrated as they desperately try to elevate the depressed person’s mood.

Symptoms of Depression and Mania

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Significant change in appetite or body weight
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment

Causes of Bipolar Disorder

Despite extensive investigation, the exact cause of bipolar disorder is still unknown. Some researchers have suggested that the cycles of moods are brought on by a viral infection, but there is yet to be any conclusive support for this theory. Others have suggested that the symptoms of bipolar disorder are triggered by stressful events in one’s life.

The most popular theory argues that bipolar disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The brain is made up of nerve cells, called neurons, and chemicals, called neurotransmitters. According to this theory, an imbalance of one neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, is thought to cause the symptoms of bipolar disorder. It seems there are unusually high levels of norepinephrine in a person^s brain during manic episodes, and markedly low levels during depressive episodes.

Family history is another factor when determining the cause for bipolar disorder. Studies show that between 4% to 24% of those who have a relative with bipolar will also develop the disorder. Individuals who have a parent or sibling diagnosed with bipolar have only about a 1% to 5% chance of developing the disorder. It’s important to note that, while those who have biological family members with bipolar disorder are at greater risk of getting the disorder, it does not mean they will get it.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is usually a life-long condition. Left untreated, the periods of mania and depression can occur over and over again and episodes can progressively become more frequent and more severe. The good news is that effective treatment is available. Treatment is vital to decreasing the suffering that accompanies the disorder and preventing future episodes. Basic ways to treat bipolar disorder are therapy, medication, and a combination of the two.


There are therapists who are especially skilled and experienced at helping people who are suffering from bipolar disorder. Therapy provides a safe, comforting, and confidential setting in which to receive the kind of help and understanding that can best assist in first relieving the symptoms, then recovering, and ultimately protecting the patient from future recurrences.

Combination of Therapy and Medication

For those who suffer from bipolar disorder, a treatment plan of both therapy and medication can be the most effective in relieving symptoms and preventing future episodes.