What does bipolar actually mean?
World Bipolar Day, 30th March 2017, is a chance to consider the continued progression of understanding, treatment and acceptance of bipolar disorder globally. It is a mental health disorder that can be difficult to diagnose and can also prove highly disruptive to a person’s everyday life, so having an idea about what it is and how it affects people can really help to break the stigma surrounding it.
What do you know about bipolar disorder?
"There is a great deal of interest in bipolar disorder, partly as a result of high profile figures such as Stephen Fry disclosing their personal experience of the condition. This is a positive development, especially when it comes to breaking down the fear and misunderstanding of mental health issues. Raising awareness in this way can really encourage people to get help for symptoms which may have previously been left untreated for years."
What are the main symptoms?
Bipolar disorder (sometimes referred to as bipolar affective disorder) is characterised by prolonged periods or episodes of mania and depression that can last for several days to weeks. These episodes can also be mixed or rapid-cycling (four distinct mood episodes in a year). It may be interesting simply to hear that bipolar disorder comes in different forms.
A manic episode can feel quite positive and the person may feel energetic and creative. During this time the person might not feel like eating or sleeping and may talk rapidly. They may also behave irrationally and spend money on things they don’t need or want.
This behaviour may then be followed by a depressive phase where those with bipolar disorder experience overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and sometimes suicidal thoughts.
Imagine going from the rush of a high to a depressive low. This could perhaps be thought of as the changing emotions of following your local football team over the course of a season, from the high of a derby victory to the low of a heavy loss. In the analogy, these wins and losses could equate to the triggering reasons for an episode, triggering reasons that it's useful to identify in each separate case.
Why do we need to diagnose bipolar early on?
There is increasing evidence showing that early diagnosis can greatly improve long term outcomes. If left untreated repeated cycles of high and low mood can disrupt education, relationships, careers and so on, so the sooner bipolar disorder is effectively managed, the better. Diagnosis can prove difficult, with specialist assessment being required to analyse a person's mood history from adolescence being the ideal method.
Dr James Woolley elaborates further on the importance of early diagnosis. There are four good reasons, derived from research studies, which illustrate why it is important to identify bipolar as soon as possible:
- To consider whether other diagnoses previously made such as depression may be missing the bipolar underneath. This can lead to incorrect treatment, sometimes for years
- To reduce the risk of manic symptoms becoming worse due to antidepressants being mistakenly used early on
- Some studies suggest that if diagnosis and effective treatment is started late then the outcome may be worse (or treatments become less effective)
- The higher number of previous episodes the greater the risk of future episodes of illness
Treating bipolar disorder
Effective treatments include both psychotherapy from a therapist experienced in the condition and medication. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be used to combat depression and to reduce the risk of relapse. The ideal treatment package can vary based on an individual's condition. It's important to note that there are many people with bipolar disorder who lead happy, productive and fulfilling lives by learning to better manage their moods and episodes. For many, the best thing that can happen is having an answer, an explanation, as to why they experience what they do.
Seven tips for dealing with bipolar disorder
- Once you have been diagnosed and are able to progress with treatment, believe that things can get better. This is a part of the recovery process and helps you cope with mood swings
- Ask questions about your condition to inform your recovery and decisions regarding treatment
- Surround yourself with positive influences; support from trusted friends and family encourages a stable lifestyle and a positive environment
- Keep tabs on when you need to take specific medication - personal responsibility is crucial within the recovery process
- Make healthy decisions e.g. with the food you eat and the relationships you have. Making rational, healthy decisions will help you to progress and control your mood
- Avoid drugs and alcohol - substances such as these give a short-term high but can fuel depression and cause greater emotional and mental issues
- Document emotions and feelings in a diary to further understand them and the pattern of triggers