Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness which is also known as manic depression or manic-depressive illness. The condition causes people to experience extreme mood swings which, in turn, affect their ability to carry out everyday tasks. These changes of mood are beyond what most people regard as the normal ups and downs of everyday life. Someone with bipolar disorder can have long or short periods of time when they feel fine but can then experience deep depression when they feel very sad and lack energy or mania when they feel full of energy and ideas. Sometimes people experience the symptoms of depression and mania at the same time.
Some people experience psychosis which means that they might see or hear things that other people cannot see or hear or believe things which seem unusual and other people do not think are real. Although it is a serious illness, bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.
The exact causes of bipolar disorder are not fully known but it seems that there are changes in the chemicals in the brain when people experience an episode of mania or depression. People are more at risk of developing bipolar disorder if other family members have a diagnosis. Stressful experiences, physical illnesses and traumatic events are thought to trigger the condition in some people.
‘I felt on top of the world – I could do anything and everything seemed possible, money was no object – I just wanted everyone to be as happy as I was.’
About 1 in 100 people has bipolar disorder. It often develops in a person's late teenage years or early adult years. At least half of all cases start before a person reaches 25 years. Some people have their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life. Bipolar disorder affects men and women from all social and ethnic backgrounds.
Signs of mania or a manic episode
Changes to mood
- a long period of ‘feeling high’ or being in an overly happy or outgoing mood
- extremely irritable mood, agitation, feeling ‘jumpy’ or ‘wired’.
Changes to behaviour
- talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
- being easily distracted
- increasing goal-directed activities, such as taking on new projects
- being restless and sleeping very little
- having an unrealistic belief in one's abilities
- behaving impulsively and taking part in a lot of pleasurable, high-risk behaviours, such as spending sprees, impulsive sex, and impulsive business investments.
Signs of depression or depressive mood
Changes to mood
- a long period of feeling worried or empty
- loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex.
Changes to behaviour
- feeling tired and lacking in energy
- having problems concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
- being restless or irritable
- changing eating, sleeping, or other habits
- thinking of death or suicide, or attempting suicide.
Some people also experience psychotic symptoms such as hearing, seeing, feeling or smelling things that other people cannot hear, see, feel or smell (known as hallucinations) or believing things that would not normally make sense such as believing that you are very rich when you are not or have extraordinary abilities (known as delusions).
There are a some questionnaires which have been designed to help people decide whether or not they have bipolar disorder. These are available on the internet free of charge. They will not confirm if you have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Some people find it helpful to work through these questionnaires when considering their own symptoms or the symptoms of someone they are concerned about – before going to see their GP, for example.
In the first instance you could go and see your GP. You may want to tell him or her how you have been feeling and what impact this is having on your life – and those around you. Your GP may refer you to a psychiatrist for assessment. There is more information about the help that may be offered to you in the help and support section of the website.
There are many things that can help you treat and manage your bipolar disorder. These include:
- getting help as early as possible. Research shows that people make a better recovery from bipolar disorder if they receive help at the earlier stages of the condition.
- medicines (also known as medication or prescribed drugs) can help you prevent and treat the condition. Some medicines known as ‘anti-psychotics’ can help people reduce a manic episode. Anti-depressants can help people during depressive episodes and mood stabilisers can help reduce both manic and depressive episodes and can also be taken all the time to prevent the symptoms returning. There is more information about medicines that can help with bipolar disorders on the websites of the national mental health charities, Mind and Rethink.
- psychological therapies such as psychotherapy, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and relationship or family therapy. There is more information about this type of help in the psychological therapies section of this website.
- getting support and sharing experiences with other people living with bipolar disorder.
- learning as much as possible about the condition and how it affects you. This could include how to recognize that you might need help. It can be useful to do this together with family members and others who are involved in supporting you. There are a number of useful books and websites which provide information and support.
- looking after yourself and trying to lead a healthy lifestyle by eating well, keeping active and getting enough sleep.
- finding ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life and trying to avoid the things which might trigger an episode.
- making changes to your life to increase your sense of mental wellbeing.