Mental health is an important yet often neglected dimension of health. Many people focus on physical health, often forgetting that mental health is essential to promoting overall wellness. It also does not help that mental health as a topic continues to be burdened by stigma. Pop culture, for instance, is guilty of perpetuating misconceptions about mental disorders. Just consider how there are so few movies about mental illness that present an accurate picture of these disorders as opposed to the proliferation of movies that present people living with mental disorders as aggressive and dangerous. One of the most misunderstood conditions is bipolar disorder. What exactly is bipolar disorder? Who is affected by this condition? What are its signs and symptoms? Can it be treated? This psychology research paper provides an overview of the basic details on bipolar disorder including its causes, impact on health, and what individuals and families can do to address this condition.
Bipolar Disorder Defined
According to the American Psychiatric Association, bipolar disorder refers to a number of conditions characterized by dramatic shifts in a person’s energy level, mood, and capacity to function. These conditions feature episodes of extreme emotional states that manifest in different times. Episodes are referred to as depressive, manic, and hypomanic. These episodes are often interspersed with normal periods as well. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 currently lists three types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder (Parekh, 2017).
The first type of bipolar is bipolar I disorder. This condition is characterized by the occurrence of manic episodes that spans at least one week (seven days) or severe manic symptoms that require hospitalization. Bipolar I may also feature depressive episodes that usually last for two weeks or more. Bipolar II, on the other hand, is characterized by the appearance of hypomanic episodes as well as depressive episodes. However, bipolar II lacks the distinct manic episodes that appear in bipolar I. Finally, cyclothymic disorder is characterized by manifestations of hypomanic symptoms and depressive symptoms, but such symptoms do not meet the criteria to qualify as manic episodes or depressive episodes. Not all cases of bipolar disorder can be categorized into one of the three. Some cases might not meet the criteria for any and are thus considered as unspecified or related disorders (Parekh, 2017).
Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder feature episodes of intense emotions, energy levels, moods, and behaviors. Such episodes are different from the usual in that they can be extreme and in some cases even cause undesirable effects. The signs and symptoms are grouped into manic and depressive and they appear as episodes. Signs and symptoms of manic episode, also colloquially termed as “high” or “up,” include increased energy; lessened need for food or sleep; restlessness; extreme elation or excitement; impulsivity; hyperactivity; impaired judgment; decreased attention or concentration; and heightened sense of confidence. On the other hand, signs and symptoms of depressive episode, also called “down” or “low,” include decreased energy or lethargy; pervasive sadness; feelings of worthlessness; sense of hopelessness; uncontrollable crying; excessive need for sleep or lessened need for sleep; loss of appetite; lack of enjoyment in activities usually considered as enjoyable; thoughts of death or suicide; and suicide attempts (Bhargava, 2020). In extreme episodes, a person may experience hallucinations and delusions. It is important to note, however, that there are instances when both manic and depressive signs and symptoms are present at the same time.
Incidence and Prevalence of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a fairly common condition. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] shows that annual prevalence of bipolar to be around 2.8% of the adult population. At 2.8% and 2.9%, respectively, prevalence among men and women are generally the same. The disorder, however, is most common among young adults. Around 4.7% of people belonging to the 18-29 years old subgroup and around 3.5% of people under the 30-34 years old subgroup have been diagnosed with bipolar. Roughly 83% of cases are considered as serious while the rest are considered as moderate (NIMH, 2017). The disorder is also common among adolescents: 2.9% of individuals aged 13-18 years old have been diagnosed with bipolar. The condition is more prevalent among girls at 3.3% as opposed to 2.6% among boys (NIMH, 2017).
Causes and Risk Factors
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is currently unknown. Indeed, most believe that bipolar disorder cannot be attributed to one factor alone; rather, there are a number of factors that increases the chances of a person being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. These are known as risk factors. One risk factor is brain structure. A number of studies show that there may be a link between brain structure and bipolar disorder. Researchers noted how there may be differences in brain structure between people diagnosed with bipolar and individuals who do not have the said condition. Another risk factor is genetics. Some studies suggest that there may be certain genes that increase the chances of being diagnosed with bipolar. Some studies further show how a family history of bipolar disorder is a risk factor that appears in many cases, thus suggesting a genetic link (NIMH, 2020).
Diagnosis and Treatment
There is no single diagnostic test or tool to determine if a person has bipolar disorder. Instead, a person may undergo more comprehensive evaluations including physical exams, mood charting, psychiatric assessment by a qualified psychiatrist, and assessment using the criteria for bipolar disorder as indicated in the DSM V. Such tests and tools are then evaluated to determine if a person has bipolar disorder (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
There is no cure for bipolar disorder and this tends to be a lifelong condition. But thanks to advancements in medicine and mental health practices, there are now various ways to treat bipolar disorder and people with this condition can lead healthy and productive lives. Adherence to treatment is also an important factor that determines quality of life (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
One of the more common treatments is taking medications. These medications include mood stabilizers such as lithium; antipsychotics that help manage manic and depressive symptoms; and antidepressants intended to address depression. These medications may be prescribed in combination depending on the specific needs of the client. It is essential for a client to adhere to the medication regimen and avoid stopping or changing doses without consultation with a healthcare provider. Some medications take time to effect while sudden cessation may aggravate symptoms (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
Another treatment for bipolar disorder is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy refers to the process of talking with a qualified counselor in order to address underlying issues like troubling thoughts, emotions, and behavior. There are also specific types of psychotherapy that a counselor may use such as cognitive-behavior therapy or CBT. Some treatments may also involve families such as in the case of family-focused therapy (NIMH, 2020).
A crucial part of treatment is preventing self-harm. Bipolar disorder may sometimes lead to an increased risk for committing self-harm including suicide. It is therefore important for a client to not hesitate in seeking help when having suicidal thoughts. Equally important is the need for healthcare providers as well as family members to remain alert for the warning signs of suicide, especially considering the high rate of mental health illness and teen suicide.
Bipolar disorder is one of the most common mental health conditions in the country. With as many as 2.9% of the adult population and 2.8% of the youth diagnosed with the condition, bipolar disorder has been a pressing issue in terms of its individual and collective effect. The condition is characterized by patterns of extreme moods, behaviors, emotions, and energy levels. More severe cases can increase the chances of suicide, which needless to say is a tragic yet preventable occurrence. Fortunately, modern treatments for bipolar disorder help countless people live fulfilling lives. Stigma remains a challenge and there is clearly a need for greater awareness. For example, people are less likely to talk about mental health than the health effects of smoking. Such reluctance to talk about mental health only prevents progress, since silence does not allow for time intervention. Education, therefore, serves as the first step towards taking care of mental health among individuals, families, and communities.
Bhargava, H. D. (2020). Bipolar disorder. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/mental-health-bipolar-disorder#1
Mayo Clinic. (2020). Bipolar disorder: Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bipolar-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355955
National Institute for Mental Health. (2017). Statistics: Bipolar disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/bipolar-disorder.shtml
National Institute for Mental Health. (2020). Bipolar disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml
Parekh, R. (2017). What are bipolar disorders? American Psychiatric Associatio. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/bipolar-disorders/what-are-bipolar-disorders