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Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious disorder of the brain. It may severely disrupt your life. At times, it may cause you and your loved ones great pain. But there is hope. Although there is no cure, treatment can help control your symptoms. Talk with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. He or she can offer guidance and support.

Man talking to therapist.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact causes of bipolar disorder aren’t known. It is known that the disease runs in families. Genes that affect nerve cells in the brain may be inherited, but as yet these genes have not been found.

Who does it affect?

Over 5 million adults in this country have bipolar disorder. Most often, it strikes young adults. It can affect children and older adults as well. Bipolar disorder affects both men and women. It can strike people of all races, cultures, and incomes.

Ups and downs

Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness. That is because it causes extreme mood swings. At times the person may feel almost too happy. These times are often followed by great despair. In some cases, both extremes may occur at once. More often, moods shift back and forth. These mood swings may occur just once in a while. Or they may happen 4 or more times a year. Without treatment, they will likely recur throughout life.

Manic episodes

During manic episodes of bipolar disorder, you feel like you’re on top of the world. Even the worst news can’t bring you down. You’ll likely feel as if you can do anything. And sometimes you may try. You may take great risks, thinking you can’t be hurt. You may also talk too fast, and your thoughts may race. You may go for days without sleeping. And you might be very active and do a lot of things in a short time. Manic episodes often end in a depression.

Depressive episodes

In depressive episodes, you feel intense sadness and depression. You may also feel worthless, tired, and helpless. Even the things you value most don’t give you pleasure. At times you may want to die. You may even think about taking your own life.

Warning signs for suicide

  • Thinking often about taking your life

  • Planning how you may attempt it

  • Talking or writing about committing suicide

  • Feeling that death is the only solution to your problems

  • Feeling a pressing need to make out your will or arrange your funeral

  • Giving away things you own

  • Participating in risky behaviors, such as sex with someone you don't know or drinking and driving

  • Buying a lethal weapon, such as a gun, or hoarding medicines that could be used in an over dose

If you notice any of these warning signs, call for help right away or go to your closest hospital emergency department. You can also call a mental health clinic or a 24-hour suicide crisis hotline for help and support. Search for local suicide prevention resources on your computer or look for the number in the white pages of your phone book under "Suicide." In an emergency, if you are in immediate risk of harming yourself, call 911.

To learn more

For more information, use the resources below:

  • National Institute of Mental Health 866-615-6464

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness 800-950-6264

  • Mental Health America 800-969-6642

  • National Suicide Hotline 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
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