Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious, life-altering illness. It causes strong mood swings between depression and "mania." It used to be called "manic depression." The mood swings are different from the normal ups and downs people have in their lives. They are more severe and last longer. They can seriously interfere with work and relationships. These episodes are changes from usual moods and behavior. They can be mild, or drastic and explosive. The time between feelings of depression and mania varies with each person. It can be weeks, month, or even years.

  • In a manic episode, you may think fast and do things quickly. It may seem like you are getting a lot done. It may feel very good at first. But in the extreme, mania can lead to a lifestyle that is disorganized and chaotic. You may take part in risky behavior. Examples are spending sprees, sexual acting-out, or drug use. In later stages, you may have no interest in food. You may not be able to sleep for days at a time. Your speech may speed up and become hard to understand. You may appear to others as if you are in your own world.

  • In a depressive episode, you may feel a lack of interest in normal activities. Sometimes you feel sadness or guilt without any clear reason. Your thinking may become slow. You may also lack energy or good concentration, or feel hopeless. Some people have thoughts of harming themselves at this stage. Thoughts can even turn to suicide.

You may feel OK between these phases. This does not mean that the illness is gone. People with this disorder will often have to treat it all their life. Correct use of medicines and ongoing medical and mental health support can greatly ease symptoms. They can enhance your quality of life.

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. But there is a genetic link that makes a person more likely to get it. Using illegal drugs such as speed (amphetamine) and cocaine raises a person's risk for this illness.

Home care

Here is what you can do at home:

  • Ongoing care and support can help you manage this disease. Find a healthcare provider and therapist who meet your needs. Seek help right away when you feel like you may be heading into either a manic episode or a depressive state.

  • Take your medicine as prescribed. Get regular blood work to check the levels of medicine in your body. Do this even if you think you don’t need to do it.

  • Don't change or stop taking your medicine unless your healthcare provider says it is OK to do so. Don't share or use another person's medicines.

  • Tell all your healthcare providers about all the prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and supplements you take. Certain supplements interact with medicines. They may cause dangerous side effects. You can also ask your pharmacist about medicine interactions before starting any new medicine or supplement.

  • Talk with your family and trusted friends about your thoughts and feelings. Ask them to help you notice behavior changes early. You can then get help and have your medicines adjusted, if needed. When you are feeling well, make a "management plan" for a trusted friend or family member to help you during hard times. For example, you can ask them to hold your credit cards for you if you overspend during a mania. Or they can get emergency help for you if your depression leads to suicidal thoughts. If your illness is severe, consider giving trusted people access to your healthcare providers. They can then work together to keep you safe.

  • Don't drink alcohol or use illegal drugs. They can bring on an episode and make it worse.

  • If your life is severely affected by this illness, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may provide help. The ADA protects people with chronic physical and mental health problems. Contact your local ADA office for help if you are having trouble keeping jobs, managing workplace issues, or caring for yourself because of your bipolar disorder. The U.S. Department of Justice has a toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY). It can help you find a local office. Or go to www.ada.gov for more information.

  • Join an in-person or virtual support group for people with mental health problems.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider or therapist as advised. They can help you find ways to improve your life.

Call or text 988

When you call or text 988, you will be connected to trained crisis counselors at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. An online chat option is also available. Lifeline is free and available 24/7. 988 counselors will work closely with 911 to get you the care you need.

Call or text 988 if you have:

  • Suicidal thoughts, a plan to harm yourself, and the means to do so

  • Serious thoughts of hurting someone else

  • Trouble breathing

  • Confusion

  • Drowsiness or trouble wakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate, very low heart rate, or a new irregular heart rate

  • Seizure

  • New chest pain that becomes more severe, lasts longer, or spreads into your shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or back

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these happen:

  • Feeling like your symptoms are getting worse (depression, agitation, or excessive energy)

  • Not eating or sleeping for more than 48 hours

  • Feeling out of control (racing thoughts, paranoid thoughts, hallucinations, or poor concentration)

  • Feeling like you want to harm yourself or another

  • Being unable to care for yourself

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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