What is Bipolar Disorder?

If you’re an avid Hollywood fan, you might have known that Catherine Zeta-Jones has checked herself into a mental health facility. Her diagnosis? Bipolar Disorder. Because of this, a few people now are wondering about this mental condition. Zeta-Jones then should be thanked for achieving what most mental health advocates struggle in getting: attention for this poorly understood but potentially devastating and surprisingly common illness.

You see, bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, actually affects 5.7 million adult Americans every year according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). That‘s roughly 2.6 % of the U.S. population. Men and women of any race have equal chances of developing it although some studies suggest that people with creative talent are more likely to have some form of bipolar disorder. In fact, Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, and Hemingway are believed to have suffered from it.

Sad part is, bipolar disorder symptoms are often dismissed that many sufferers are not diagnosed, and therefore do not receive timely treatment. Bipolar disorder patients are often told “snap out of it”, “You just have the blues” or that they’re temperamental, moody, or just weird. As a result, majority of the patients have to bear their symptoms in escalating degrees for as long as 10 years before they are found out to have bipolar disorder. Worst, only one out four of them are diagnosed accurately.

How dangerous is this? Bipolar disorder, when left undiagnosed and therefore untreated, renders its victim incapable of functioning normally. It makes everyday tasks such as sleeping, going to school or work, and relating to people difficult or downright impossible. In fact, the World Health Organization ranked bipolar disorder as the sixth leading cause of disability in the world. But that’s not all; without adequate social support and medical attention, one out of five bipolar disorder patients commit suicide.

So What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is one of mental illnesses under a category called mood disorders. It is characterized by episodes of extreme levels of emotional states. This is not the usual sad and happy moments which we all experience because these symptoms are often severe, prolonged, and happening in senseless cycles that impair normal daily functioning. NIMH says you can tell if a person is having a bipolar episode if he exhibits mood episodes several times a day and nearly every day for one to two weeks. Below are these mood episodes experienced in Bipolar Disorder:

1. Mania – At times, a patient is on a “high”. He’s hyperactive. He hardly sleeps, talks too fast, and jumps at one thought to another. He’s easily irritated, aggressive, impatient, makes rash decisions, cannot concentrate, goes on shopping sprees, engages in impulsive sex, drives recklessly, and has unrealistic beliefs in his capabilities.

2. Depression – Sometimes a patient is at a “low”. He’s not interested in performing his daily activities, even those that he used to enjoy. He feels guilty, anxious, sad, empty, and worthless, and tired. He sleeps too much or can’t sleep. He either hates to eat or he overeats. He doesn’t like to have sex. He has trouble focusing and remembering and he contemplates suicide.

In some instances, Bipolar disorder patients even experience hallucinations and delusions which frequently lead to misdiagnosis of Schizophrenia. To ease their symptoms, many patients turn to alcohol and drugs which worsen their episodes and make their condition harder to diagnose.

As for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ symptoms, she is said to have Bipolar II Disorder, one of four classifications of bipolar disorder. The other three types are Bipolar I Disorder, Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (BP-NOS), and Cyclothymia.

– A Bipolar II patient shifts from severe depression to mild manic state called hypomania.

– Bipolar II episodes are less severe than those of a Bipolar I sufferer who swings from severe mania to severe depression and is usually suicidal.

– A BP-NOS patient on the other hand has symptoms but can’t be categorized into Bipolar I or II.

– Cyclothymia is the mildest form of bipolar disorder with mild bipolar episodes spread over two years.

But What Causes Bipolar Disorder?
Experts agree that not just one but a number of factors may be involved in the development of bipolar disorder. These are the following:

1. Genetics. If a person has a close relative that has bipolar disorder, it doesn’t mean that he automatically has it too. However, his risk is considerably higher. For instance, if only one of his parent has bipolar disorder, he has 15-30% chance of developing the disease. If both parents have it, then his risk of getting it climbs to 50-70%.

2. Brain Structure. Current brain-imaging tools revealed to researchers that there are abnormalities in some parts of the brains of bipolar disorder patients. They also have reduced brain volume compared to healthy individuals. Some authorities also suggest that imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain impair the brain’s mood-regulating system.

3. Environment. Recent stressful life events may trigger one’s first bipolar disorder episode, either manic or depressive. These include death in the family, end of relationships, divorce of parents, a loved one having terminal illness, and so forth.

Researchers came out with a “kindling” theory that says people who are genetically and anatomically predisposed to bipolar disorder lower their threshold of mood changes if they experience a series of traumatic events. A manic or depressive mood then starts and becomes recurrent fully developing into bipolar disorder.

Is It Treatable?
Bipolar disorder cannot be cured. However, medications such as mood stabilizers are prescribed by doctors to enable the patient to control his symptoms. The patient also undergoes counseling or psychotherapy. Usually, even family members who will be his primary caregivers will go through counseling.

Psychiatric medications have many known side effects and not all bipolar disorder sufferers have similar responses to a drug. Sometimes, several drugs are tried before the most effective medication is determined. It is therefore imperative for patients to keep a chart of their symptoms, sleep patterns, medications, and life events. This will help their doctors monitor if their treatments are working. If a patient’s symptoms or side effects worsen, his doctor may adjust or alter his treatment.

Bipolar disorder is an illness that lasts a lifetime and may be recurrent. However, as long as there is effective maintenance treatment plan, good relationship with doctors, a healthy lifestyle, and more importantly, understanding and care from family and friends, individuals with bipolar disorder may be able to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

In fact, Catherine Zeta-Jones is also proving this as true; she’s been reported to be out of the mental treatment center and is ready to start working on her two new films.

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