Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, is a mental illness characterized by extreme and often sudden changes in mood. Consequently, this affects behavior and thinking. The “poles” of bipolar disorder are mania and depression.

Mania is marked by extreme agitation, impaired judgment, euphoria, restlessness, impulsivity and can lead to reckless behavior. Depression, on the other hand, is marked by overwhelming sadness, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. The consequences of impulsive decisions made while manic are known to fuel the intensity of a depressive swing. Bipolar disorder affects approximately three in every 100 Americans.1

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Typically, the cycles between mania and depression are slow, and can have periods of normal moods in between. Some people have what is known as “rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” which is diagnosed when people have four or more distinct episodes of highs and lows over the course of a year.

Maintaining relationships, holding down a job, keeping up with bill payments and other necessities of daily life are more difficult with bipolar disorder. But a high quality of life can be achieved through combinations of medication management, education, therapy, support and positive habits. Chances are that you already know someone with bipolar who leads a normal life.

Bipolar is a serious illness, and it can be extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual and their family and friends. Bipolar can interfere with a person’s perception of reality. People with bipolar have an increased risk for self-harm and suicide. It is extremely important that people with bipolar disorder manage it with some combination of therapy, medication, meditation and familial support.

One of the more common misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that people with bipolar suddenly and frequently change personalities or moods, like Jekyll and Hyde. While it’s true that rapid cycling bipolar disorder can mean more frequent changes in mood, it is still rare that shifts would take place over the course of a day or even a week. In fact, scientists have estimated that most people with bipolar have only eight or nine cycles in their entire lifetime.

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder is only made after a careful evaluation of symptoms using criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The manual is more commonly referred to as the DSM. Because bipolar often has a genetic component, a family history should be taken as well at the time of evaluation.

Bipolar disorder can be diagnosed by a licensed behavioral health care provider. If you or someone you know has symptoms of bipolar disorder, seek counsel with a behavioral health care provider as soon as possible.