Mental Health Awareness Week - Bipolar Disorder

It’s mental health awareness week which means it’s a great opportunity to raise awareness of mental health in general, as well as the mental health issues that have less public awareness.

Whilst most people are aware of depression and anxiety, there are a large number disorders that are less well known. Below, we provide an overview of one of these, bipolar disorder.

What is bipolar disorder?

Most people have emotional ups and downs from time to time. But if you have a condition called bipolar disorder, your feelings can reach abnormally high or low levels.

The word bipolar means two extremes. For the many millions experiencing bi-polar disorder around the world, life is split between two different states of mood; manic or hypomanic episodes (feeling high) and depression (feeling low).

When in an elated mood, a person with bipolar disorder often has exceptional energy and feels optimistic and even invincible. It can even induce grandiose behaviour. Common symptoms include irritation, agitation, racing thoughts, sleeplessness, rapid speech and impulsive actions.

In contrast, the depressed phase of bipolar disorder often manifests in a low mood, a dwindling interest in hobbies, difficulty in finishing things, feeling worthless or excessively guilty,and restlessness or slowness.

Worldwide about 1-3% of adults experience the broad range of symptoms that indicate bipolar disorder. It usually starts between the ages of 15-19, and rarely starts after the age of 40.

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What types of bipolar disorder are there?

Whilst there are many different types of bipolar disorder, there are two main types referred to as bipolar type I and bipolar type II.

Type I bipolar disorder is characterised by experiencing extreme highs which are accompanied by extreme lows. The extreme highs are known as ‘manic episodes’ and the extreme lows are known as ‘depressive episodes’.

Untreated, a manic episode can last 3-6 months whereas depressive episodes tend to last a lot longer. Without treatment both episodes become longer, more intense, and take longer to subside.

Type II bipolar disorder involves briefer, less extreme periods of elation, interspersed with longer periods of depression. Those with type-II will also experience a major, deep, and prolonged depressive episode, which may not be the case with type-I.

What causes bipolar disease?

Genetics is believed to play a key part. As with many medical conditions, bipolar disorder tends to run in families. If you have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder, your risk of developing it is higher.

It’s believed the main cause of bipolar disorder is due to abnormal physical characteristics of the brain or an imbalance in certain brain chemicals.

Some researchers believe bipolar disorder is caused by the neural pathway in the brain not functioning as it should do. The neural pathway is responsible for relaying nervous signals from the brain to the rest of the body. In this instance, the brain does not preserve healthy neuron connections, which distorts its signalling function, and by extension, the instructions it gives to the rest of the body.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder have also been associated with the excessive production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is produced in several areas of the brain. The effects of excessively high dopamine levels include anxiety, difficulty sleeping, stress, as well as increased energy and an improved ability to focus and learn.

Some researchers also believe that bipolar disorder can be developed through severe stress, drug or alcohol abuse, and psychological trauma, for example, in the form of severely upsetting experiences. These experiences can include childhood abuse or the death of a loved one.

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How is bi-polar disorder treated?

If a person is not treated, episodes of bipolar-related mania can last for between 3 and 6 months and episodes of depression between 6 to 12 months. But with effective treatment, episodes usually improve within about 3 months.

Doctors usually treat bipolar disorder with a combination of medication and psychotherapy;

  • Mood stabilisers taken daily to prevent episodes of mania and depression
  • Medication taken to treat the main symptoms of mania and depression as and when they happen
  • Psychological treatment such as talking therapies
  • Lifestyle advice such as regular exercise, diet planning and making sure to focus on enjoying activities

What it's like living with bipolar disorder – by Laura Bain

Below, Laura Bain provides a TED talk about living with bipolar type II disorder

Always remember, that if you, or a loved one, are feeling down there is plenty of support available to you. Click here to see the many helplines and support groups that offer expert advice.

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