What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects a person’s mood and energy levels.
Everyone has highs and lows, but people with bipolar have extreme ups and downs in mood. These mood changes can be distressing for them and other people. They can affect how they live their life, and even put them in risky situations. Between these mood swings, however, they feel and act normally.
People with bipolar disorder have times when their highs are extreme and they have too much energy. These highs are called ‘mania’ when severe, or ‘hypomania’ when less severe.
Most people with bipolar disorder also have times when they feel extremely down. They can feel hopeless, helpless or empty. This is called bipolar depression.
In the past, bipolar disorder was called ‘manic depression’.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, but with the right treatment the symptoms can be well controlled.
Types of bipolar disorder
There are two types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I disorder (bipolar one disorder) and bipolar II disorder (bipolar two disorder).
People with bipolar I disorder have mania, and most also have depression.
People with bipolar II disorder have hypomania and depression.
Doctors use these categories to help them choose the right treatment.
What causes bipolar disorder?
There is no single cause of bipolar disorder. It can be caused by different things in different people.
We know that bipolar disorder changes how the brain works, and this causes symptoms of mental illness.
Some things that make it more likely that someone will develop bipolar disorder are:
- having particular genes
- stress while a child or teenager (e.g. trauma or illness)
- using drugs.
There is still a lot about the causes of bipolar disorder that isn't yet well understood.
When someone already has bipolar disorder, their symptoms can be brought on by stress.
Who gets bipolar disorder?
Around 1 in every 100 people will have bipolar disorder (I or II) during their life.
It is seen in males and females, and in all countries and cultures.
For people with bipolar I, symptoms usually begin during their late teens, with depression.
For bipolar II, symptoms tend to start later, when the person is in their late 20s.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder
People with bipolar disorder have extreme highs (mania or hypomania) and most also have lows (bipolar depression).
Different people have these in different combinations. For example, people can have:
- mostly mania/hypomania
- mostly depression
- depression followed by mania/hypomania
- features of both at the same time (this is called 'mixed states').
Between these mood swings, however, they feel and act normally.
People with bipolar disorder usually have depression for much more of the time than they have mania or hypomania.
Bipolar is different for everyone, but a common pattern is that someone will have at least one episode of bipolar symptoms every few years, with each episode lasting for a few months.
Some people have 'rapid cycling' bipolar, which means they have at least 4 episodes per year.