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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Often called manic-depression, bipolar disorder is a serious, chronic illness accompanied by disabling mood swings from high (manic) to low (depressed).   Estimates of how many Americans are affected range from three to seven million Americans.  Like many physical illnesses, bipolar disorder has a strong hereditary component.  In many families without a known history of bipolar disorder, a history of suicide may be the tip-off clue that someone was misdiagnosed, or kept their symptoms a secret.  The death rate from suicide in bipolar disorder is over 10%, or 40 times the expected death rate from suicide in the general population.

What distinguishes people with bipolar disorder from those with generalized depression is the hallmark manic phase.  This often starts with the person feeling more energized, creative, productive as well as hypersexual.  Shopping sprees or other evidence of grandiosity or other extravagant excess-whether or not the person has the means to afford it-is often another symptom.  Many patients with untreated manic-depression actually drink alcohol or take illicit drugs in order to self-medicate or gain some sense of control.  Estimates are that more than 50% of bipolar individuals experience problems with alcohol or drugs.

Correct diagnosis is often difficult because those afflicted are often only willing to seek medical attention when they're depressed; they don't want the manic phase to be diminished.  As a result, physicians usually only see the depression. Studies indicate that patients often suffer for an average of eight years with this condition before being correctly diagnosed.  Often, this leads to mismanagement with anti-depressant medications, which can often exacerbate bipolar symptoms and cause it to cycle more and trigger manic episodes.

Once properly diagnosed, the standard medical treatment for this disorder is mood stabilizers (e.g. Lithium; Depakote; or Lamictal) in combination with effective psychotherapy.

For more information about depression or other mental health issues, click here.

Created: 9/16/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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