What Is Bipolar Disorder? Symptoms, Diagnosis And Treatment Explained

Mariah Carey has revealed she was diagnosed with the mental health condition in 2001.

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, is a fairly common mental illness affecting one in every 100 adults in the UK.

Despite its prevalence, misconceptions around the illness continue to persist. In a blog on HuffPost UK, Sharon Sutton said she gets frustrated by the inaccurate cultural reference of linking bipolar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. What’s more, illustrations of bipolar in the media often centre on a person with two faces, something mental health campaigners have called “stigmatising”.

Thankfully, awareness of what it’s really like to have bipolar disorder is slowly but surely improving, with celebrities including Mariah Carey and Stephen Fry speaking about their experiences.

Forget the damaging stereotypes, here’s what you need to know about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

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What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is characterised by a person experiencing periods of depression, where they will feel very low, and periods of mania, where they will feel very high and possibly overactive.

“Going from one extreme mood to another can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life,” Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind tells HuffPost UK.

The cycle between low and high episodes varies from person to person both in the time it takes to go between the two and how severe symptoms are. Depending on the way you experience symptoms, you may diagnosed with a particular type of bipolar disorder, he explains. Three of the main diagnoses are:

  • Bipolar I/Bipolar Type I
    ”You might be diagnosed with bipolar type I if you experience at least one episode of mania which has lasted longer than a week. You might also have experienced depressive episodes, although not everyone does.”

  • Bipolar II/Bipolar Type II
    ”You may be told you have bipolar II if you have experienced both at least one episode of severe depression and symptoms of hypomania. Hypomania is similar to mania, but tends to last for a shorter time and doesn’t include any psychotic symptoms.”

  • Cyclothymia
    ”You may be diagnosed with cyclothymia if you have experienced both hypomanic and depressive mood states over the course of two years or more and your symptoms aren’t severe enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar I or bipolar II. This can be a difficult diagnosis to receive, because you may feel that you are being told your symptoms are ‘not serious enough’. But in fact cyclothymia can have a serious impact on your life.”

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

There is no medical test for bipolar disorder, but if you are concerned about symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP. They will talk to you about your feelings, thoughts and your personal history. They may refer you to a psychiatrist - a doctor that specialises in mental health - who will ask more questions in order to provide a diagnosis.

In a blog on HuffPost UK, writer Katie Conibear reassured those concerned that receiving a formal diagnosis can be a good thing. “Being labelled was a release. No longer did I feel weighed down with the burden of knowing something was wrong with me, but not understanding what it was,” she said.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

Once someone has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they are likely to have been offered medication - such as lithium, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics - to help them manage their symptoms.

But Buckley explains medication should be part of a wider treatment package. “The importance of self-care shouldn’t be underplayed,” he says. “Things like maintaining a daily routine, trying to get a good’s night sleep, healthy diet and engaging in regular physical exercise are all crucial.”

He adds that many people find talking treatments, including counselling and psychotherapy, helpful and these can be arranged through your GP.

What can help you manage bipolar disorder?

Pablo Vandenabeele, Bupa’s clinical director of mental health, says if you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it can help to remember this “isn’t something to be ashamed or embarrassed about”.

“Talking to your loved ones about your condition can help them to support you. As bipolar is a chronic condition, if friends and family are aware of the signs that you’re becoming unwell they will be able to ensure that you seek medical help at an earlier stage,” he says.

He also offers the following advice for managing symptoms day-to-day:

  • Manage your stress levels: “Too much pressure can contribute to you going into a manic state, or falling into depression. If you’re approaching a particularly busy time at work or in your personal life, think about how you can manage this to avoid becoming overly stressed”.

  • Create a plan with your doctor: “It’s important to work with your doctor or mental health specialist to create a plan specific to managing your condition. This may also include developing some pre-prepared statements to explain to those around you when you’re not well, as it can be hard to find the words to express how you’re feeling when you’re not well.”

  • Work with your doctor to make your medication right for you: ”Some bipolar medications can cause side-effects such as drowsiness at certain times of the day, which can be inconvenient for your schedule. Working with your doctor to discuss your day-to-day life can allow you to manage the medication to fit in with your lifestyle.”

  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption: ”Alcohol consumption can significantly affect your mood so try to avoid drinking to excess - and don’t be tempted to self-medicate or to stop taking your medications without speaking to your doctor.”

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk

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