Bipolar disorder used to be known as ‘manic depression’; it is a serious mental illness and involves significant extremes of mood, swinging from extreme highs during ‘mania’ to extreme lows during the depression stage. Bipolar disorder differs from normal mood swings, as each extreme of mood may last for several weeks or months at a time.

What is Bipolar disorder?

Depression – The depression stage of Bipolar disorder is often what is noticed first. Some individuals may initially be diagnosed as being clinically depressed and it may not be until they experience ‘mania’ that the diagnosis is changed to bipolar disorder.

The length of a depressive episode varies from person to person. During this time the individual may experience low mood, a lack of energy, crying spells, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and other symptoms common to depression. Sometimes during a depressed stage a person may feel so low and worthless that they feel suicidal.

Mania – During the manic phase of Bipolar disorder a person may be on a high, feel very happy, energetic and can experience heightened creativity and ambition, even in areas where they may normally show no interest. The individual may not feel that they want or need either sleep or food. During mania an individual can become more talkative and lively but can also react more emotionally to other people and may become easily irritated. Mania can cause someone to become easily distracted, or experience incoherent, rapid or disjointed thinking. Sometimes mania can also cause an individual to do things that they would not normally do, like spending money on things they don’t need/can’t afford, behaving in a more promiscuous way or engaging in extreme behaviours that are out of character for them such as a person who is usually afraid of heights going skydiving. Less severe mania is sometimes called Hypomania. Although Hypomania is not as severe as Mania, it can still have a major impact on somebody’s life.

During the manic phase, a person with Bipolar disorder may also experience Psychosis. During psychosis a person experiences an altered reality. This may include:

  • Hallucinations – where a person sees, hears or smells things that do not really exist but which appear very real to the individual experiencing them.
  • Delusions – where the person genuinely believes things that rational thought shows to be untrue – for example a person may believe they are a government spy being persecuted, or experience ‘delusions of grandeur’ where they may believe they are very wealthy or hold a high degree of power.

There are different types of Bipolar Disorder, most commonly Type I and Type II:

  • People with Bipolar 1 experience both mania and depression with a typical depressive episode (untreated) lasting around 6 – 12 months. People with Bipolar 1 who are not receiving treatment may experience mania for between 3 – 6 months at a time.
  • People who experience Bipolar 2 tend to experience depression more of the time and are likely to have repeated episodes of severe depression. People with Bipolar 2 experience the less severe Hypomania rather than the more extreme manic episode.

Bipolar Disorder is commonly managed using medication.  The specific medication used will vary from individual to individual and will be depended on both the nature and degree of the illness. Medications used will also take into account what phase the person is experiencing at the time.

An early diagnosis and acceptance of the illness can be major factors in managing Bipolar Disorder.  If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know your first port of call should be the GP.

Find out more about Bipolar from this useful NHS booklet.

Real Life Story - Louise

Louise shared her personal experience of Bipolar with Mind Your Head.  This story was also published in the Shetland Times in 2013.  You can read her story here.

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Chairperson of Mind Your Head, Shona Manson


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