Understanding Bipolar Disorders: Breaking the stigma and promoting awareness

Understanding Bipolar Disorders: Breaking the stigma and promoting awareness

Since 2014, World Bipolar Day has been internationally celebrated every March 30. Ten years later, work remains to raise awareness and end the stigma associated with bipolar disorders.

Continuing this work means chipping away at the stigma that surrounds bipolar disorders to ensure that those struggling are correctly diagnosed and receive effective treatment and care. And the best way to promote awareness and end the stigma is to talk about it.

So, what exactly is bipolar disorder, how does it manifest, and how is it treated?

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder that affects one’s mood, energy and ability to function, leading to days or weeks of mood episodes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “these mood episodes are categorized as manic/hypomanic (abnormally happy or irritable mood) or depressive (sad mood).”

What are the types of Bipolar Disorders and their symptoms?

There are two primary types of bipolar disorders, Bipolar I Disorder and Bipolar II Disorder. These two types differ in how long a person’s mood episodes last and the intensity of symptoms they experience.

A person with Bipolar I Disorder may experience episodes lasting a week or more with an extreme increase in energy, decreased need for sleep, accompanied by euphoria or intense irritability. They may also have depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks consisting of overwhelmingly down and depressed moods accompanied by changes in energy, appetite, concentration, and/or sleep. Episodes of mania and depression occur between periods of feeling normal or having a neutral mood.

Symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder

Manic episode at least five consecutive days

  • Feeling elated or very irritable
  • Decreased need for sleep—getting no or very little sleep but still having an excessive amount of energy
  • Accelerated or rapid speech such that people cannot interrupt
  • Thoughts that are going so fast it is not possible to keep up
  • Frequent shifts in conversation topics or easily distracted
  • Significantly increased activity and feeling restless
  • Engaging in risky behaviors that put one’s life or well-being in jeopardy with no understanding of the consequences of those actions (actions that the individual would not undertake outside a manic episode)

Major depressive episode – at least 2 full weeks

  • Feeling intense sadness
  • Extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping or too much sleep
  • Slow speech or movements
  • Trouble concentrating or decision-making
  • Loss of interest in activities one usually enjoys
  • Excessive feelings of worthlessness, guilt or shame
  • Changes in appetite, often leading to changes in weight
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide or feeling that life is not worth living

Someone experiencing these symptoms will find disruption and dysfunction with work, family, friends, social activities and responsibilities. They may even need hospitalized in order to keep themselves safe.

On the other hand, those with Bipolar II Disorder don’t experience mania but rather experience hypomanic episodes accompanied by depressive episodes. Hypomanic episodes are less severe and often shorter in duration compared to manic episodes. The depressive episodes are the same as in Bipolar I. Individuals with Bipolar II should also seek help and treatment.

How are Bipolar Disorders diagnosed and treated?

If someone is suspected to have a bipolar disorder, diagnosis consists of working with a health care provider who may do a physical exam and other medical tests to rule out other possible illnesses, and refer the person to a mental health professional for proper diagnosis.

Once diagnosed, the best treatment for both Bipolar I and Bipolar II is medication and talk therapy. Medications for Bipolar Disorder include mood stabilizers as well as some atypical antipsychotics, along with other medications to treat co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety. Often, receiving an accurate diagnosis and starting medications is the first step in treatment. Talk therapy can also be beneficial when used along with medications. Therapists can work with the person to find the right modality in order to provide the best support, education and strategies to assist in treating bipolar disorders.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bipolar Disorders, visit the International Bipolar Foundation or the International Society for Bipolar Disorders.

BHWC Mission

To increase access to effective behavioral health services through coordinated initiatives to recruit, educate, and retain professionals in behavioral health.