What is Bipolar Disorder?

Fact Sheet: Frequently Asked Questions About Bipolar Disorder
July 1, 2009

Q: What is bipolar disorder?

A: A brain disorder marked by bouts of extreme and impairing changes in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms may emerge either suddenly or gradually during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

Q: Can bipolar disorder be cured?

A: Clinical depression and bipolar disorder tend to be episodic in nature. These illnesses are treatable, but right now cannot be cured. The goal of treatment should be to manage the disease, decrease the severity of depressive and manic episodes and keep recurrences to a minimum.

Q: What is the difference between depression and bipolar illness?

A: Clinical depression is also called “unipolar” depression because a person’s mood swings only in one direction – down. Normal periods are separated by a steady drop in mood, which becomes lower and lower. In contrast, manic depression is “bipolar,” because the mood swings range from low to high (manic) and back again.

Q: Is there a connection between alcohol or drug abuse and bipolar disorder?

A: Yes, definitely. A significant number of teenagers who abuse these substances are really suffering from an underlying mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. Without realizing it, they may be trying to “self medicate” their symptoms of clinical depression or manic depressive illness.

Teens with mood disorders who abuse alcohol or drugs may seek these substances because they temporarily offer relaxation, or help them feel more confident or energetic. Unfortunately, this is temporary and can cause the depression to worsen, resulting in two serious conditions rather than one.

Q: How can I tell whether someone is bipolar or just dealing with stress?

A: Doctors look for the following symptoms.

Symptoms of mania may include:

Elevated mood—silliness or extreme happiness that is inappropriate
Grandiosity—inflated sense of importance
Racing speech and thoughts
Talking more than usual
Irritability or hostility
Excessive distractibility
Decreased need for sleep
Reckless behavior or poor judgment (daredevil acts, hypersexuality)
Hallucinations and psychosis

Symptoms of depression may include:

Lack of pleasure in life
Withdrawal from favorite activities
Agitation and irritability
Persistent feelings of sadness and/or crying spells
Sleeping too much or inability to sleep
Drop in grades or inability to concentrate
Thoughts of death and suicide
Fatigue or loss of energy
Significant weight loss, weight gain or change in appetite

Q: Can diet or vitamins regulate a mood disorder?

A: Diet or vitamins alone cannot regulate mood disorders. Preliminary research suggests that SOME vitamins and supplements (such as Omega 3s, folate, and B vitamins) may have a positive impact on mood, or at least have some impact on general health, but more research is needed. Lifestyle is also important to your health. Good sleeping habits is one of the more critical components for wellness and overall health and, along with a healthy diet and exercise, can help to manage bipolar disorder more effectively.

Q: Why do some people avoid treatment?

A: There are many reasons why people avoid getting treatment for mood disorders. Unfortunately, there is still shame or stigma surrounding these disorders, even though they have a biological cause just as in diabetes or asthma. Although the public is gradually becoming more educated about clinical depression and bipolar disorder, fear, prejudice and misconceptions still exist and make some individuals reluctant to admit that they have a mood disorder. They fear that people will discriminate against them. They may even believe that if they seek treatment they are weak-willed, defective, or even “crazy.” Sadly, many people with these incorrect beliefs would rather suffer than seek treatment. Some people think that they deserve to feel bad, another sign of impaired judgement. They also may feel guilty about issues for which they are not responsible. Another reason that people avoid treatment has to do with the feelings and beliefs that are part of the disorder. Those who feel awful, who are always tired and believe that they are always going to feel bad may not have the energy to push themselves to get help.

Q: How do mood disorders affect the brain?

A: All mood disorders start in the brain. Since the brain is an organ of the body, like the heart or the pancreas, mood disorders are physical, biologically-based disorders. However, in mood disorders, the chemical processes responsible for normal brain function are disrupted. One of the major symptoms is mood disturbance, which is why many people think of mood disorders as emotional illnesses.

People should never feel ashamed or blame themselves for having a mood disorder. Mood disorders affect the whole body and many daily activities, which is why eating and sleeping disturbances, problems with concentration and fatigue may occur.

Q: How do mood disorders affect relationships?

A: Important relationships are often damaged or strained as a result of clinical depression or bipolar disorder. For example, a classmate suffering from depression often withdraws from others, giving the impression that he or she does not care about friends and family. In addition, he or she may often be irritable or angry. Unless those close to the depressed teenager understand a lot about mood disorders, they may react with hurt or anger and friends may even end the relationship. Adolescents sufferring from depression may not behave like their normal selves, and they are unable to tell others how awful and worthless they feel. It is important that, as their friend, you do not turn away. A depressed friend needs to know that someone cares, even if he or she cannot show any appreciation. Just listening to your friend demonstrates that someone cares about his or her feelings and thoughts. Your support may help your friend seek treatment and that is the most important gift you can give.

Q: How can I tell if a family member or a friend is suffering from a mood disorder?

A: The signs to watch for are persistent changes in moods or behaviors that make the person seem different from normal. Perhaps the friend or family member has stopped caring about his or her appearance, is complaining about insomnia, lack of appetite or changes in eating habits. Perhaps he or she is abusing alcohol or drugs, is withdrawing from friends and family, is constantly bored and can no longer concentrate and seems cranky and/or appears tearful for no apparent reason. The person may seem to view everything in a negative way. These are some signs that might indicate a family member or friend has a mood disorder. If you suspect a mood disorder to be the problem, it is important to tell the person that you are concerned about him or her and ask if he or she has considered the possibility that a mood disorder might be present. If he or she seems receptive, you might provide some information (see this list of resources). Most importantly, turn to a trusted adult to help you deal with this situation.

Q: How can I help friends or family members who have a mood disorder?

A: There are many ways you can support others with depression and bipolar disorder. Most importantly, encourage them to get treatment and follow their physician’s instructions. Learn all you can about the illness and its treatment so that you can be as supportive as possible. Constantly let your friends or family members know that you care about them. Their self-esteem may be so low that it is difficult for them to believe that they matter to anyone. You may have difficulty because people with mood disorders are not always easy to be around and may even reject those closest to them. You should not take this personally; it is just another indication of how bad they feel most of the time. Do not treat them as invalids; it is important for them to be as self-sufficient as possible. Reassure them that the success of their treatment can only have a positive effect on their future.

Q: Why is suicide one of the leading causes of death in young people between the ages of 15 and 24?

A: Suicide is far more common among teenagers and young adults than most of us are aware. Tragically, most of these young people have a completely treatable, biologically-based illness like clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Without treatment, they cannot understand that the painful thoughts and emotions that make their lives so unbearable are symptoms of an illness that will lessen and disappear when treated appropriately.

Q: If I’m diagnosed as having a mood disorder, I must be a real loser and my friends must also think of me that way.

A: Many famous and successful people have suffered from mood disorders: Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Tipper Gore, Abraham Lincoln, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Bonnie Raitt, Mike Wallace, Margot Kidder, Brooke Shields, Drew Carey, and Rosie O’Donnell to name a few. You should not consider yourself a “loser” simply because you have a biochemical illness. The list of famous people above should show you that having a mood disorder does not mean you will lead an unsuccessful or unproductive life. In fact, if you get proper treatment and take responsibility for managing your illness, you may discover that you have a creative side that will help you achieve your goals. Remember that among the major symptoms of mood disorders are irritability, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, and disordered thoughts. Until your medication takes effect, you may not feel like your usual self. You may focus on negative thoughts that make you feel even worse. However, as the medication begins to work, these negative thoughts and feelings diminish and you will feel like getting on with your life.

Q: Sometimes I think I might be suffering from bipolar disorder, but I don’t feel I can tell my parents how bad I’m feeling. What should I do?

A: As an adolescent, you are becoming more independent from your parents and more confident of your own ideas and plans for the future. Life is a lot more complicated now than when you were a child, and you may find that it is not as easy or comfortable to communicate with your parents as it once was. It may even seem that they cannot possibly understand your moods and emotions. You will have to trust that your parents care deeply about your well-being. Talk to them about the possibility that you are bipolar. Give them the information they need to help you. Tell them them the symptoms that led you to believe you might have a mood disorder. If you are certain that your parents will not react in a helpful way, turn to another adult you respect and trust: a grandparent, aunt or uncle, teacher, counselor, coach, school nurse, minister, rabbi or priest, or perhaps the parent of a friend. A caring adult will listen, take you seriously and help you find assistance, which includes talking with your parents. No one deserves to feel depressed or to live a life burdened by an untreated mood disorder.

Q:”What do all those words mean?”

affective disorders — Unpleasant changes in mood that may be symptoms of clinical depression or bipolar illness.

bipolar disorder — Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which one’s mood swings between two poles – from low to high (mania) and back down again to low (depression)

brain chemistry — The chemical processes that take place in the brain and allow it to function. With normal brain chemistry, neurons in the brain send messages, neurotransmitters carry the messages across to the next neuron, and receptors on the receiving neuron activiate to receive incoming messages.

delusion — False beliefs that may accompany a severe depressive or manic episode.

depression (clinical depression) — Unipolar depression in which one’s mood only swings in one direction: down. Normal periods are separated by periods in which one’s mood sinks lower and lower.

hallucinations — Hearing and seeing things (visions or mistaken impressions that may accompany a severe depressive or manic episode).

hypomania — A milder form of mania than that experienced by those with fullblown manic depression. Hypomania does not spiral up into the dangerous highs of a true manic state, but the lows of the depressed phase must be treated. Someone suffering from hypomania might take on projects that would not otherwise be tackled. He or she may feel more social than usual or seek out social situationst aht would normally be avoided.

manic depression — See bipolar disorder

manic episode (mania) — The high side of manic depressive illness, characterized by extreme restlessness and unusually high energy until sleep is no longer possible. In extreme manic states, hallucinations and delusions are common since extremely disordered thoughts result in a loss of touch with reality.

mixed states — Both phases of manic depression are experienced at the same time. A high energy level and rapid thoughts of mania may be accompanied by irritability, unhappiness and a low mood.

mood stabilizers — Drugs like Lithium, Depakote, Tegretol or Lamictal help to regulate the mood. These medications smooth out the serious fluctuations of the extreme high and low moods.

Use of Information

The information on this site is intended to help users learn about teenage depression and related mood disorders. It is provided for informational and referral purposes only. The web site should NOT be used as a substitute for medical advice, counseling, or other health-related services or as a replacement for the services of a trained medical or mental health professional. For medical or mental health advice, services, and treatment, consult your primary care physician or a qualified mental health care professional.

Information was taken from http://www.thebalancedmind.org/learn/library/frequently-asked-questions-about-bipolar-disorder

My son Clifford E. Widmer, III who died on 5/25/05