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Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a psychiatric disease characterized by periods of abnormally elevated moods, often followed by episodes of depression.
Different from the normal highs and lows that everyone experiences, the symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe and extreme. They can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. An individual with bipolar disorder has episodes of mania characterized by an abnormally elevated mood, sleeplessness, racing thoughts, and pressured speech. Individuals with bipolar disorder can go from feeling very sad, despairing, helpless, worthless, and hopeless (depression) to feeling as if they are on top of the world, hyperactive, creative, and grandiose (mania).
In severe cases, thoughts become increasingly chaotic, and may become delusional. Without treatment, the disorder often has disastrous consequences. During manic episodes, peoples’ actions may cause them to lose jobs, destroy relationships, go into debt, and even put themselves into dangerous situations. Hospitalization is sometimes required to prevent such consequences or suicide.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that about 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6% of the population age 18 and older in any given year have bipolar disorder. There is no cure for bipolar illness, but symptoms can be managed. Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop them late in life. It is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated.
The episodes of mood swings tend to become closer together with age. Extreme mania can lead to aggressive behavior and homicidal acts.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, bipolar disorder includes four types of mood episodes including depression, mania, hypomania, and mixed mood.
Medications and psychotherapy help to stabilize moods and alleviate symptoms.
A number of persons with bipolar disorder may turn to drugs and alcohol to “self-treat” their emotional disorder, resulting in substance dependence.