Understanding the Symptoms and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder

Recently, Catherine Zeta-Jones made the surprising announcement that she suffers from bipolar disorder.  Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is met with a lot of confusion and incorrect assumptions.  Here, we’ll clear up some common questions about the disorder.

What is bipolar disorder?  Bipolar disorder, according to PubMed Health, involves periods of elevated or irritable mood, called mania, which alternate with periods of depression. The mood swings between mania and depression can be abrupt and occur without cause or warning. The disorder typically presents itself between the ages of 15-25.  If affects men and women equally, and though the exact cause is unknown, doctors have observed that it occurs more often in relatives of people with bipolar disorder. Doctors have identified that some situations are more likely to trigger episodes than others.  The situations include: life changes such as childbirth, medications such as antidepressants or steroids, periods of sleeplessness, and recreational drug use

Catherine_Zeta-Jones_VF_2012_Shankbone_2What are the symptoms?  Manic episodes can last from days to months include a number of symptoms, including: agitation or irritation, inflated self-esteem, little need for sleep, hyperactivity, lack of self control, reckless behavior, poor temper control, and a tendency to be easily distracted.  Sleep is very important in preventing the onset of a manic phase. The depressed phase of bipolar disorder includes symptoms like: low mood, difficulty performing mental tasks, altered eating habits, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, sleep disturbances, and withdrawal from friends and activities. Abusing alcohol or other drugs during either phase of bipolar disorder can potentially make symptoms worse.

How is it treated?  Bipolar disorder is typically treated with drugs called mood stabilizers.  They include carbamazepine, lamotrigine, lithium and valproate.  Sometimes doctors may also prescribe antiseizure drugs, antipsychotic drugs, anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants. In severe cases, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been used to treat people who do not respond to medication.  ECT is a psychiatric treatment that uses an electrical current to cause a brief seizure of the central nervous system.

What support programs are available?  There are a number of family treatment programs that combine support and education about bipolar disorder as well as community support services for people who lack family support.  The goal of these programs is to help people suffering from bipolar disorder to cope with their symptoms, learn a healthy lifestyle, learn how to take medications correctly and learn to watch for signs of relapse.  Contact your local hospital to learn what programs are available in your area.