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 we all have in our lives. They are more severe and last longer. They can seriously interfere with work and relationships. These episodes are changes from our usual moods and behavior. Their severity can be mild, or drastic and explosive. Also, the time between feelings of depression and mania vary 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. At first, it may feel very good. But in the extreme, mania can lead to a lifestyle that is disorganized and chaotic. You may partake in risky behavior, such as spending sprees, sexual acting-out, or drug use. In later stages, you may have no interest in food and may be unable 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 there is sadness or guilt without any clear reason. Your thinking may become slow. You may also lack energy or feel hopeless. Some people have thoughts of harming themselves at this stage. Thoughts can even turn to suicide.

Between these phases, you may feel OK. This does not mean that the illness is gone. People with this disorder will often have to treat it all their life. Proper use of medicines and effective, on-going medical and psychological support can greatly reduce symptoms and 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. Also, the use of illegal drugs such as speed (amphetamine) and cocaine raise 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 and get regular blood work to check the levels of medicine in your body, as prescribed. Do it 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. If you are having trouble keeping jobs, managing workplace issues, or caring for yourself because of your bipolar disorder, contact your local ADA office to see if it can help. 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 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 911

Call 911 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

© 2000-2021 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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