About 5.7 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder. While this condition has become better understood and more widely accepted, many patients and caregivers still lack an understanding of what exactly they’re going through and how it can be successfully treated.
Bipolar disorder is diagnosed when a patient has a manic episode, an abnormal period of behavior lasting at least one week. Symptoms will be present daily or nearly every day. Patients will have inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, increased talkativeness or pressure to keep talking, racing thoughts and distractibility. Participating in dangerous activities, such as reckless driving, shoplifting or sexual promiscuity, is also common.
Approximately 50 percent of manic episodes include psychotic symptoms such as delusions of paranoia or hallucinations. These symptoms can affect a patient’s personal and professional life, and often require hospitalization.
A manic episode may start with or be followed by episodes of major depression or hypomania, feeling unusually happy and hyperactive. Hypomania symptoms are less severe than a manic episode and no hospitalization is needed. But people with bipolar disorder spend more time in a depressed state. Patients may lose interest in activities and have a significant decrease or increase in appetite or weight, sleep issues, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, decreased ability to think or concentrate, and indecisiveness. Thoughts of death and suicidal symptoms may also occur.
As with other psychiatric disorders, bipolar disorder often runs in families and may be associated with anxiety disorders and alcohol and drug abuse. The good news is that treatments are effective in most cases. Medications, known as mood stabilizers, can balance moods and the illness, preventing episodes from recurring. Psychotherapy is helpful for enhancing coping skills to manage the illness.
For treatment to be successful, patients need to be aware of their condition and engaged in their treatment. To stay on track, peer support is available for patients and their families at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
If you suspect a loved one has bipolar disorder, seek medical help immediately.
Dr. Ihsan Salloum is a psychiatrist with treatment and research focus on bipolar disorder with co-occurring alcoholism, and chief of the Division of Substance and Alcohol Abuse at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.