Bipolar disorder is a relatively common disorder – it affects about 2 people in every 100 in Australia. It is equally common in men and women. Despite this, most of us know little about it.
As the previous name of manic-depression suggests, it consists of episodes of either mania or depression. These episodes involve exaggerations of normal behaviours and emotions. Between episodes, people with bipolar disorder are no different from anyone else.
During manic phases, sufferers may feel extremely happy and full of energy, be talkative, sleep less, be more sexually aroused than usual, and have floods of ideas. However, they can also be irritable, and do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do, such as spend excessive amounts of money. During this phase, people may lack the awareness that they are ill, as minor levels of mania can feel stimulating and exciting.
Lowered mood, lack of energy, poor concentration, and loss of interest in activities are typical of depressed phases. We all have times when we feel down, so depressed phases can be easier to understand, however people with bipolar disorder can have severe levels of depression when they are almost unable to do anything.
All people have fluctuations of mood – some people more than others. What distinguishes people with bipolar from other people is the degree of mood fluctuation. The manic or depressed mood is severe, is not affected by normal changes in life circumstances, and can last for weeks or months.
During episodes of either sort, sufferers behave in ways that are uncharacteristic for them. This is not something that they have control over, any more than someone with a heart condition is able to ‘get over it’. Although unusual behaviour may be uncomfortable for people around, it is even more uncomfortable for the person with bipolar disorder. The extremes of mood characteristic of bipolar disorder are not something that anyone would choose.
Although stress may precipitate an episode in which a person with bipolar becomes either high or low, often there is no obvious precipitant. For some unknown reason, mania is more common in spring, and depression is more common in early winter.
Treatment for bipolar disorder can include medication (antidepressants and mood stabilisers), and psychotherapy to aid understanding of the illness, and develop coping skills.
When relating to someone with bipolar disorder, remember that they are a person first and foremost. At times the disorder may get in the way of how they choose to be, but it will never totally remove those aspects of personhood that make each of us individual.