What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Learn the causes and symptoms of bipolar disorder, plus get the facts about the available treatment options.

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Photo by Susie Cushner

What Is It?

Affecting about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population, bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness distinguished by severe mood swings and drastic changes in energy level. Sufferers typically endure long periods of clinical depression, followed by short spells of mania, which can be experienced as euphoria or irritability. “It’s also possible for bipolar people to feel manic and depressed at the same time,” says Igor Galynker, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Beth Israel Hospital, in New York City. The severest form of the disease is type 1, in which the manic episodes can require hospitalization and feature psychosis, such as delusional thoughts. (For more on type 1, read about one woman’s experiences living with bipolar disorder.) Type 2 sufferers also require medication, but their symptoms are less dramatic.

What Causes It?

There is no known cause, but a family history of the disease makes a person more likely to get it. “A parent with type 1 or type 2 bipolar has about a 10 percent chance of having a child who suffers from the illness,” says Galynker.

Can It Be Treated?

With the right combination of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotic medications, the symptoms can lessen, allowing bipolar sufferers, types 1 and 2, to lead relatively normal lives. Unfortunately many of the drugs have marked side effects (including painful rashes, diabetes, and weight gain), which is why some patients struggle to stick with their regimens. Denial of the illness is another reason.

How Can I Get Help?

If you suspect that you or a loved one may have bipolar disorder, talk to your primary-care doctor about how to proceed. To learn more, visit the website of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (nami.org).