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Bipolar disorder

Summary

Bipolar disorder is a type of psychosis and used to be called 'manic depression'. A person with bipolar disorder experiences alternating episodes of mania and depression. The exact cause is unknown, but a genetic predisposition has been clearly established. Environmental stressors can also trigger episodes of illness.

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Bipolar disorder, or bipolar mood disorder, used to be called ‘manic depression’. It is a psychiatric illness characterised by extreme mood swings. A person may feel euphoric and extremely energetic, only to drop into a period of paralysing depression, in a cycle of elation followed by sadness. The exact cause is unknown and a number of factors may be involved, although a genetic predisposition has been clearly established.

It is estimated that around one in 50 Australians develops this illness, which affects men and women equally. Most of those affected are aged in their 20s when first diagnosed.

Bipolar disorder typically involves extreme moods of mania and depression – each lasting days, weeks or even months. Some people experience more highs than lows, others report more lows than highs. The severity of the mood swings and the symptoms will also vary from person to person. The person may be affected so much that they experience the symptoms of psychosis and are unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Bipolar disorder and mania


Common symptoms include:
  • Feeling extremely euphoric (‘high’) or energetic
  • Going without sleep
  • Thinking and speaking quickly
  • Delusions of importance
  • Reckless behaviour, such as overspending
  • Unsafe sexual activity
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Grandiose, unrealistic plans.

Bipolar disorder and depression


Common symptoms include:
  • Withdrawal from people and activities
  • Overpowering feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Lack of appetite and weight loss
  • Feeling anxious or guilty without reason
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Contributing factors to bipolar disorder


The underlying mechanisms of bipolar disorder are not fully understood, although a strong genetic predisposition has been established. One theory is that the illness might be linked to particular brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) called serotonin and norepinephrine that help regulate mood. In a person with bipolar disorder, it is thought that these chemicals are easily thrown out of balance.

Other contributing factors may include stressors in life that can trigger episodes of illness.

Treatment for acute episodes of bipolar disorder


When people experience an acute episode of mania or depression, they often require immediate care and treatment. These episodes can often be prevented by regular medication such as lithium.

Help for bipolar disorder


Treatment depends on the severity of the condition, but options may include:
  • Mood-stabilising medications such as lithium
  • Antidepressants for depression
  • A range of medications for mania, such as sedatives or tranquillisers
  • Counselling and education to help the person understand and manage their condition
  • Community support programs, which provide rehabilitation, accommodation and employment support
  • Self-help groups for emotional support and understanding.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Psychiatrist
  • SANE Australia Helpline Tel. 1800 187 263

Things to remember

  • Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric illness that involves severe mood swings.
  • The exact cause is unknown, but contributing factors may include genetics, brain chemicals and stress.
  • Treatment includes medication and community support.
  • Stresses in life can trigger episodes of illness in those who are vulnerable.

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Last reviewed: January 2014

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.


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Bipolar disorder is a type of psychosis and used to be called 'manic depression'. A person with bipolar disorder experiences alternating episodes of mania and depression. The exact cause is unknown, but a genetic predisposition has been clearly established. Environmental stressors can also trigger episodes of illness.



Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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