WASHINGTON, August 15, 2014 — The tragic and untimely death of comedian Robin Williams has brought bipolar disorder and depression out in the open.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Health, approximately 2.6 percent of American adults live with bipolar disorder, about 6.1 million people.
With numbers like this, it is hard to understand why people who live their lives with this illness try so desperately to keep it a secret.
Misinformation about mental illness often leads to fear and stigma, but as we see with the loss of a beloved celebrity, it is something that needs to come out of the shadows.
What exactly is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is also sometimes called “manic-depressive illness” or disease. It is a brain disorder that causes a person to have an unusual range in emotions, moods and energy levels.
The emotional swings of someone who is bipolar are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through in life. These changes can be severe and lead to difficulties in work, school and relationships and can even lead to suicide.
Bipolar disorders are often not easy to identify and people often suffer in silence for years before receiving any treatment.
The disorder often begins in a person’s late teen years or early adulthood; at least half of all reported cases begin before age 25, although there are reported onset cases in young children and older adults.
What are the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder?
People who are bipolar will experience noticeable extreme mood episodes. These episodes are notably different from the person’s usual state of mind.
These episodes are classified as manic and depressive.
During a manic episode a person will have some of these symptoms:
- Experience an unusually long period of feeling happy and on a “high”
- Talking very fast and have racing thoughts
- Be extremely restless
- Start multiple new tasks
- Have an unrealistic belief in ones abilities
- Participate in high risk behaviors
- Have difficulty sleeping
- Be extremely irritable
During a depressive episode a person may:
- Remain overly sad for a long period of time
- Lose interest in activities that they once enjoyed
- Will feel overly tired and “slowed down”
- Become indecisive
- Be unable to focus or concentrate
- Think of death or suicide
A bipolar person will usually experience distinctive manic and depressive episodes for certain separate periods of time. The separate mood episodes can last anywhere for a few hours to months.
People who have bipolar disorder will often not believe that their behavior is unusual, but family and friends will notice the changes. This is particularly true when someone has bipolar II, where the manic states are less extreme.
Although most manic and depressive episodes occur separately, some people will have them at the same time in what is called, a mixed state.
During a mixed state, a person would feel agitated and full of energy at the same time that they are having sad and often suicidal thoughts.
Substance abuse is often seen in people with bipolar disorder. It is believed this is in part an attempt to control mood by self medicating. Drugs and alcohol can make a person feel more normal. Excessive drinking or drug use would also be associated with behaviors that are brought on in a manic state.
Although there is no cure for bipolar disorder, it can be treated with different types of medication and therapy.
Since there is no cure, treatment must be continued in the long term, for when it is stopped, the symptoms return.
Successful treatment often interferes with continued treatment; people feel better, so they believe that maybe they do not actually need the medication any longer and that they would be fine with or without it. The stigma associated with mental health issues also interferes with long term treatment.
Patience is required, as there is no one treatment that works for everyone. The process of finding the correct treatment and correct dosage can be frustrating.
If someone you know or love has bipolar disorder, it is your disease as well.
The most important thing to do for someone who has these symptoms is to be supportive and to help them get the treatment they need. You may need to accompany them to their appointments and possibly even make the appointment for them in the first place.
Never ignore or brush off any comments from a loved one about harming themselves. Report these comments to a health professional immediately; do not worry about inconveniencing anyone or overreacting. It is truly a matter of life or death. A doctor will be very happy to be able to tell you it was a false alarm.
If you believe you or someone you love may have bipolar disease, call a therapist or psychologist now.
It is often difficult to take the first step and make an appointment with a therapist but it is the best thing you can do for your family and yourself if there is any concern about having a mood disorder. No reputable doctor will treat you unless it is needed.
Do not let stigma prevent you from getting well. It is a disease that can be treated. You are not bipolar, you have bipolar disorder in the same way that someone might have a cancer or heart disease.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, get help quickly. Go to an emergency room or call a toll-free suicide hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), TTY 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)