Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition. It can lead to extreme changes in mood, energy, and ability to function. It used to be referred to as manic depression.
There are two distinct parts of the illness: periods of feeling depressed and low, and then huge emotional highs where the person can be incredibly overactive. Unlike daily mood swings, people with bipolar may be in one state of either mania or depression for weeks or months at a time. In between these episodes, the person may feel normal and well. Bipolar symptoms can be severe and may affect your daily life, work, studies and relationships.
It is quite common to receive a diagnosis of depression first, as these symptoms tend to be present for longer periods of time than the manic episodes. Depression in severe cases can lead people to feel worthless, without hope, and suffering thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
If you are feeling suicidal your doctor would want to know. If your doctor is not available you can call the emergency services for help, or present to your local emergency department as a place of safety.
An episode of mania that appears after previous depressive episodes may make the diagnosis of bipolar more obvious. People experiencing a manic episode can feel elated and happy, they can feel full of energy, despite feeling they don't need food or sleep, and they can have grand plans sometimes spending large sums of money they may not be able to afford or could be considered a rash decision. There's often a lack of insight that anything is wrong, especially as some people report feeling more creative during manic episodes - and this makes them reluctant to seek treatment.
The cause of bipolar disorder remains unclear. There seems to be a family link, with an increased chance of developing it if someone in your immediate family has been diagnosed. Difficult life events and extreme stress may also increase your risk of developing bipolar disorder.
Managing bipolar disorder, like any long-term condition, is difficult, but there are lots of things that can be useful. Starting small is the best first step, and eating a healthy diet, getting a good amount of sleep and doing regular exercise will help.
You will normally be looked after by your family doctor, possibly with input from the psychiatry team when needed. Talking therapies can be useful, and these may be accessed through your doctor or from your psychiatrist if you have one.
Medications will help manage some aspects of your condition. Your psychiatry team can suggest medications that help prevent big mood swings from high to low, keeping your mood stable. There may also be additional medications if you are having a particularly difficult high or low period for a short time. Depression is sometimes the bigger factor, and anti-depressants may be appropriate as the mainstay of treatment.
If you are worried that you have symptoms of bipolar disorder, the best thing is to book a routine appointment with your doctor to discuss this. If your symptoms are severe, you can request an urgent appointment.
If you are feeling suicidal, your doctor would want to know. If your doctor is not available you can call the emergency services for help, or present to your local emergency department for a place of safety.
If you are concerned that one of your family or close friends is manic, you should try to persuade them to seek help from their doctor or the emergency department. If they are very unwell but unwilling to engage, you should call 999 for an ambulance, or police if there is a risk to their safety or that of others.
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