Understanding bipolar disorder

Friday, 23 March 2018

It’s natural to experience mood changes throughout life, depending on what’s happening in your day and in your life. Highs and lows are to be expected, but some people have extreme mood swings which significantly impact their ability to function day-to-day. If a person is experiencing ongoing dramatic highs and lows which are difficult to explain and understand, they may have bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder can be a complex condition, not least because it is often misdiagnosed and can remain misdiagnosed for many years. A correct diagnosis is essential to understanding and managing bipolar disorder, and ensuring mental illness doesn’t rule a person’s life.

Characteristics of bipolar disorder

The extreme moods of a person with bipolar disorder are characterised as mania (feelings of euphoria) and depression (feeling really low).

An episode of mania is described as a ‘distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive or irritable mood’. To diagnose mania, at least three of the following symptoms need to be prevalent for at least a week:

  • High self esteem
  • Little need for sleep
  • Talking fast
  • Flight of ideas
  • Easily distracted
  • Increased interest in goals/activities
  • Psychomotor agitation (pacing, shaking, etc.)
  • Increased pursuit of dangerous activities

To diagnose an episode of depression, at least four of the following symptoms need to be prevalent for at least two weeks:

  • Changes in appetite or weight, sleep or psychomotor activity
  • Decreased energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, plans or attempts

Diagnosing bipolar disorder

If you suspect you or a loved one may have bipolar disorder, it’s important to visit your GP. A medical professional will be able to run tests and determine that your symptoms are associated with bipolar disorder, and not due to another underlying medical condition.

There are also different categories of bipolar disorder, and the GP will be able to talk you through these, as well as create a treatment plan.

The importance of support

The diagnosis of a mental illness can be a distressing and isolating experience for a person. Demonstrating your commitment to helping and supporting your friend or family member during challenging times is a kind and compassionate act, and will help them feel less alone. Your GP can help you with practical strategies to support your loved one during this time of transition, and refer you to other services if necessary.