What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder affecting 1 in 50 (1.8%) of adult Australians that causes clear changes in mood, energy, activity and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.

While normal ups and downs in life are brief, the extreme shifts in mood in bipolar disorder, called episodes, usually last a week to several months.

People with bipolar disorder have episodes of:

Depression

The symptoms of a low or depressed state are the same as those for people experiencing depression, including

  • feeling low, sad or hopeless
  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • losing interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • irritable and snappy
  • difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • extremely low energy
  • loss of appetite or overeating
  • difficulty concentrating
  • in severe cases there may be psychosis, including hallucinations, hearing voices, delusions

Mania (or hypomania)

  • sleeping very little but having extremely high energy
  • feeling elated, confident or irritable and agitated
  • rapid thoughts, speech and movements
  • starting multiple new tasks or projects at once
  • difficulty concentrating
  • low impulse control, may behave recklessly or over-excitedly
  • may include psychosis such as hallucinations, delusions or false beliefs (mania only, not present in hypomania)

(Less severe manic periods are known as hypomania in which the person does not have psychosis and hospitalisation is not necessary.)

Bipolar disorder is a life-long illness which cannot be cured. It is usually treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications may include combinations of mood stabilisers, anti-depressants or anti-psychotics.

Everyone with bipolar disorder experiences it differently so there is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. It can take months or even years for a person to find the right combination. However, with proper management people with bipolar disorder can lead relatively normal and productive lives.

Next post: Types of bipolar disorder

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