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Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood clinically referred to as mania or, if milder, hypomania. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time. These episodes are usually separated by periods of "normal" mood, but in some individuals, depression and mania may rapidly alternate, known as rapid cycling. Extreme manic episodes can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. The disorder has been subdivided into bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymia and other types, based on the nature and severity of mood episodes experienced; the range is often described as the bipolar spectrum.

Data from the United States on lifetime prevalence vary but indicate a rate of around 1 percent for Bipolar I, 0.5 to 1 percent for Bipolar II or cyclothymia, and between 2 and 5 percent for subthreshold cases meeting some but not all criteria. The onset of full symptoms generally occurs in late adolescence or young adulthood. Diagnosis is based on the person's self-reported experiences, as well as observed behavior. Episodes of abnormality are associated with distress and disruption, and an elevated risk of suicide, especially during depressive episodes. In some cases it can be a devastating long-lasting disorder. In some cases, however, it has been associated with creativity, goal striving and positive achievements.

Many factors contribute to the development of bipolar disorder, including genetics, life experiences and neural and psychological processes. Bipolar disorder is often treated with anti-manic, and sometimes other, psychiatric drugs. Psychotherapy may have an important role, as well as personal recovery work. Depending on the jurisdiction, in serious cases in which there is a risk of harm to oneself or others involuntary commitment may be used; these cases generally involve severe manic episodes with dangerous behaviour or depressive episodes with suicidal ideation. There are widespread problems with social stigma, stereotypes and prejudice against individuals with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Also called manic depression or bipolar affective disorder, the current term is of fairly recent origin and refers to the cycling between high and low episodes (poles). A relationship between mania and melancholia had long been observed, although the basis of the current conceptualisation can be traced back to French psychiatrists in the 1850s. The term "manic-depressive illness" or psychosis was coined by German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin in the late nineteenth century, originally referring to all kinds of mood disorder. German psychiatrist Karl Leonhard split the classification again in 1957, employing the terms unipolar disorder (Major depressive disorder) and bipolar disorder.

Signs and symptoms

Bipolar disorder is a condition in which people experience abnormally elevated (manic or hypomanic) and abnormally depressed states for significant periods of time, in a way that interferes with functioning.

Major depressive episode

Signs and symptoms of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder include: persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, isolation and/or hopelessness, disturbances in sleep and appetite, fatigue and loss of interest in usually enjoyed activities, problems concentrating, loneliness, self-loathing, apathy or indifference, depersonalization, loss of interest in sexual activity, shyness or social anxiety, irritability, chronic pain (with or without a known cause), lack of motivation, and morbid/suicidal ideation. In severe cases, the individual may become psychotic, a condition also known as severe bipolar depression with psychotic features.

Manic episode

Mania is generally characterized by a distinct period of an elevated, expansive, or irritable mood state. Sometimes people commonly experience an increase in energy and a decreased need for sleep. A person's speech may be pressured, with thoughts experienced as racing. Attention span is low and a person in a manic state may be easily distracted. Judgment may become impaired; sufferers may go on spending sprees or engage in behavior that is quite abnormal for them. They may indulge in substance abuse, particularly alcohol or other depressants, cocaine or other stimulants, or sleeping pills. Their behavior may become aggressive or intrusive. People may feel they have been "chosen", are "on a special mission", or other grandiose or delusional ideas. Sexual drive may increase. At more extreme phases, a person in a manic state can begin to experience psychosis, or a break with reality, where thinking is affected along with mood. Many people in a manic state experience severe anxiety and are very irritable (to the point of rage), while others are euphoric and grandiose.

In order to be diagnosed with mania according to DSM-IV a person must experience this state of elevated or irritable mood, as well as other symptoms, for at least one week, less if hospitalisation is required. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "A manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the other symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for 1 week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present.

Hypomanic episode

Hypomania is generally a less extreme state than mania, and people in the hypomanic phase generally experience fewer symptoms of mania than those in a full-blown manic episode. During an episode, one might feel an uncontrollable impulse to laugh at things he or she does not normally find funny. The duration is usually also shorter than in mania. This is often a very "artistic" state of the disorder, in which a flight of ideas, extremely clever thinking, and an increase in energy can occur.

Mixed affective episode

In the context of bipolar disorder, a mixed state is a condition during which symptoms of mania and clinical depression occur simultaneously (for example, agitation, anxiety, aggressiveness or belligerence, confusion, fatigue, impulsiveness, insomnia, irritability, morbid and/or suicidal ideation, panic, paranoia, persecutory delusions, pressured speech, racing thoughts, restlessness, and rage).


Diagnosis is based on the self-reported experiences of an individual as well as abnormalities in behavior reported by family members, friends or co-workers, followed by secondary signs observed by a psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, clinical psychologist or other clinician in a clinical assessment. There are lists of criteria for someone to be so diagnosed. These depend on both the presence and duration of certain signs and symptoms. Assessment is usually done on an outpatient basis; admission to an inpatient facility is considered if there is a risk to oneself or others. The most widely used criteria for diagnosing bipolar disorder are from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the current version being DSM-IV-TR, and the World Health Organization's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, currently the ICD-10. The latter criteria are typically used in Europe and other regions while the DSM criteria are used in the USA and other regions, as well as prevailing in research studies.

An initial assessment may include a physical examination by a physician. Although there are no biological tests which confirm bipolar disorder, tests may be carried out to exclude medical illnesses such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, metabolic disturbance, a systemic infection or chronic disease, and syphilis or HIV infection. An EEG may be used to exclude epilepsy, and a CT scan of the head to exclude brain lesions. Investigations are not generally repeated for relapse unless there is a specific medical indication.

There are several other mental disorders which may involve similar symptoms to bipolar disorder. These include schizophrenia,, schizoaffective disorder, drug intoxication, brief drug-induced psychosis, schizophreniform disorder and borderline personality disorder. Both borderline personality and bipolar disorder can involve what are referred to as "mood swings". In bipolar disorder, the term refers to the cyclic episodes of elevated and depressed mood which generally last weeks or months. The term in borderline personality refers to the marked lability and reactivity of mood, known as emotional dysregulation, due to response to external psychosocial and intrapsychic stressors; these may arise or subside suddenly and dramatically and last for seconds, minutes, hours or days. A bipolar depression is generally more pervasive with sleep, appetite disturbance and nonreactive mood, whereas the mood in dysthymia of borderline personality remains markedly reactive and sleep disturbance not acute. Some hold that borderline personality disorder represents a subthreshold form of mood disorder, while others maintain the distinctness, though noting they often coexist.

Criteria and subtypes

There is no clear consensus as to how many types of bipolar disorder exist. In DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10, bipolar disorder is conceptualized as a spectrum of disorders occurring on a continuum. The DSM-IV-TR lists four types of mood disorders which fit into the bipolar categories: Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymia, and Bipolar Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified).

Bipolar I

In Bipolar I disorder, an individual has experienced one or more manic episodes with or without major depressive episodes. For a diagnosis of Bipolar I disorder according to the DSM-IV-TR, there requires one or more manic or mixed episodes. A depressive episode is not required for the diagnosis of Bipolar I disorder but it frequently occurs.

Bipolar II

Bipolar II disorder is characterized by more hypomanic episodes rather than actual manic episodes, as well as at least one major depressive episode. Hypomanic episodes usually do not go to the full extremes of mania (i.e. do not usually cause severe social or occupational impairment, and without psychosis), and this can make Bipolar II more difficult to diagnose, since the hypomanic episodes may simply appear as a period of successful high productivity and is reported less frequently than a distressing depression. For both disorders, there are a number of specifiers that indicate the presentation and course of the disorder, including "chronic", "rapid cycling", "catatonic" and "melancholic".


Cyclothymia involves a presence or history of hypomanic episodes with periods of depression that do not meet criteria for major depressive episodes. A diagnosis of Cyclothymic Disorder requires the presence of numerous hypomanic episodes, intermingled with depressive episodes that do not meet full criteria for major depressive episodes. The main idea here is that there is a low-grade cycling of mood which appears to the observer as a personality trait, but interferes with functioning.

Bipolar NOS

Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified is a catch-all diagnosis that is used to indicate bipolar illness that does not fit into the other diagnostic categories. If an individual clearly seems to be suffering from some type of bipolar disorder but does not meet the criteria for one of the subtypes above, he or she receives a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified).

Rapid cycling

Most people who meet criteria for bipolar disorder experience a number of episodes, on average 0.4 to 0.7 per year, lasting three to six months.

Rapid cycling, however, is a course specifier that may be applied to any of the above subtypes. It is defined as having four or more episodes per year and is found in a significant fraction of individuals with bipolar disorder. The definition of rapid cycling most frequently cited in the literature (including the DSM) is that of Dunner and Fieve: at least four major depressive, manic, hypomanic or mixed episodes are required to have occurred during a 12-month period. There are references that describe very rapid (ultra-rapid) or extremely rapid (ultra-ultra or ultradian) cycling. One definition of ultra-ultra rapid cycling is defining distinct shifts in mood within a 24–48-hour period.


The experiences and behaviors involved in bipolar disorder are often not understood by individuals or recognized by mental health professionals, so diagnosis may sometimes be delayed for 10 years or more. That treatment lag is apparently not decreasing, even though there is now increased public awareness of this mental health condition in popular magazines and health websites. Despite this increased focus, individuals are still commonly misdiagnosed. An individual may appear simply depressed when they are seen by a health professional. This can result in misdiagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and harmful treatments. Recent screening tools such as the Hypomanic Check List Questionnaire (HCL-32) have been developed to assist the quite often difficult detection of Bipolar II disorders.

It has been noted that the bipolar disorder diagnosis is officially characterised in historical terms such that, technically, anyone with a history of (hypo)mania and depression has bipolar disorder whatever their current or future functioning and vulnerability. This has been described as "an ethical and methodological issue", as it means no one can be considered as being recovered from bipolar disorder according to the official criteria. This is considered especially problematic given that brief hypomanic episodes are widespread among people generally and not necessarily associated with dysfunction.

Flux is the fundamental nature of bipolar disorder. Individuals with the illness have continual changes in energy, mood, thought, sleep, and activity. The diagnostic subtypes of bipolar disorder are thus static descriptions — snapshots, perhaps — of an illness in continual flux, with a great diversity of symptoms and varying degrees of severity. Individuals may stay in one subtype, or change into another, over the course of their illness (Goodwin & Jamison, 1990). The DSM V, to be published in 2012, will likely include further and more accurate sub-typing (Akiskal and Ghaemi, 2006).

The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children is particularly challenging, and controversial. Some who show some bipolar symptoms tend to have a rapid-cycling or mixed-cycling pattern that may not meet DSM-IV criteria. In addition, it can be difficult to distinguish between age-appropriate restlessness, the fidgeting of children with ADHD, and the purposeful busy activity of mania. Further complicating the diagnosis, is that abused or traumatized children can seem to have bipolar disorder when they are actually reacting to horrors in their lives.

Associated features

Associated features are clinical phenomenon that often accompany the disorder, but are not part of the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

Cognitive impairment

Recent reviews converge on a consensus that during remission most patients with bipolar disorder are not significantly impaired in basic neuropsychology compared to non-clinical controls, except possibly those who are either elderly, have a chronic illness, or have multiple episodes. There may be impaired sustained attention on monotonous tasks, even when controlling for mild mood symptoms, which does not appear to be explained by deficits in working memory because individuals with a remitted diagnosis of bipolar disorder were overall better at the tasks than controls.

Recent studies have found that bipolar disorder involves certain cognitive deficits or impairments, even in states of remission.

 It is not known whether specific cognitive deficits are mood state dependent or disorder-specific features of bipolar disorder. Few studies have examined impairments throughout all the different mood states, and many studies show conflicting data compared to other studies on account of methodological differences. Furthermore, the presence of mixed mood states complicates the  identification of accurate cognitive models for this condition. Some use theories that conform to the cognitive  models for unipolar depression and others on theories that focus solely on physiological or biological aspects of mania. However, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd  of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts has argued that some deficits should be included as a core feature of bipolar disorder. According to McIntyre et al. (2006), 
Study results now press the point that neurocognitive deficits are a primary feature of BD; they are highly prevalent and persist in the absence of overt symptomatology. Although disparate neurocognitive abnormalities have been reported, disturbances in attention, visual memory, and executive function are most consistently reported. However, in the April–June 2007 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research (41, 3–4, 265–272) Spanish researchers (Selva et al.) reported that people with bipolar I who have a history of psychotic symptoms do not necessarily experience an increase in cognitive impairment. Some individuals diagnosed with bipolar I may experience only mood-congruent psychotic symptoms which may suggest a less severe prognosis, but this is by no means conclusive.

Creativity and accomplishment

While the disorder affects people differently, individuals with bipolar disorder during the manic phase tend to be much more outgoing and daring than individuals without bipolar disorder. The disorder is also found in a large number of people involved in the arts. It is an ongoing question as to why many creative geniuses had bipolar disorder. Some studies have found a significant correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder. Though studies consistently show a positive correlation between the two, although it is unclear in which direction the cause lies, or whether both conditions are caused by a third unknown factor. Temperament has been hypothesized to be one such factor.

A series of authors have described mania or hypomania as related to higher accomplishment, elevated achievement motivation and ambitious goal setting. One study indicated that greater-than-average striving for goals, and sometimes obtaining them, corresponded with mania.


The lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder type I, which includes at least a lifetime manic episode, has generally been estimated at 1%. A reanalysis of data from the National Epidemiological Catchment Area survey in the United States, however, suggested that 0.8 percent experience a manic episode at least once (the diagnostic threshold for bipolar I) and 0.5 a hypomanic episode (the diagnostic threshold for bipolar II or cyclothymia). Including sub-threshold diagnostic criteria, such as one or two symptoms over a short time-period, an additional 5.1 percent of the population, adding up to a total of 6.4 percent, were classed as having a bipolar spectrum disorder. A more recent analysis of data from a second US National Comorbidity Survey found that 1% met lifetime prevalence criteria for bipolar 1, 1.1% for bipolar II, and 2.4% for subthreshold symptoms. There are conceptual and methodological limitations and variations in the findings. Prevalence studies of bipolar disorder are typically carried out by lay interviewers who follow fully structured/fixed interview schemes; responses to single items from such interviews may suffer limited validity. In addition, diagnosis and prevalence rates are dependent on whether a categorical or spectrum approach is used. Concerns have arisen about the potential for both underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis.

Late adolescence and early adulthood are peak years for the onset of bipolar disorder. These are critical periods in a young adult's social and vocational development, and they can be severely disrupted.

Major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are currently classified as separate disorders. Some researchers increasingly view them as part of an overlapping spectrum that also includes anxiety and psychosis. According to Hagop Akiskal, M.D., at the one end of the spectrum is bipolar type schizoaffective disorder, and at the other end is unipolar depression (recurrent or not recurrent), with the anxiety disorders present across the spectrum. Also included in this view is premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis. This view helps to explain why many people who have the illness do not have first-degree relatives with clear-cut "bipolar disorder", but who have family members with a history of these other disorders.


Bipolar disorder in children has generally been considered very rare, and its diagnosis is controversial. Onset prior to age 10 has been found in an estimated 0.3% to 0.5% of bipolar patients, although some case reviews suggest higher figures. Nevertheless, findings indicate that the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003, and continues to increase. The data suggest that doctors had been more aggressively applying the diagnosis to children, rather than that the incidence of the disorder has increased. The study calculated the number of psychiatric visits increased from 20,000 in 1994 to 800,000 in 2003, or 1% of the population under age 20. Assumptions regarding behavior, particularly in regard to diagnosing bipolar disorder, ADHD, and mania in children and adolescents, have raised considerable questions regarding unnecessary treatment, especially as antipsychotic drugs sometimes prescribed for the treatment of BD may increase risk to health including heart problems, diabetes, liver failure, and death.

Older age

There is a relative lack of knowledge about bipolar disorder in late life. There is evidence that it becomes less prevalent with age but nevertheless accounts for a similar percentage of psychiatric admissions; that older bipolar patients had first experienced symptoms at a later age; that later onset of mania is associated with more neurologic impairment; that substance abuse is considerably less common in older groups; and that there is probably a greater degree of variation in presentation and course, for instance individuals may develop new-onset mania associated with vascular changes, or become manic only after recurrent depressive episodes, or may have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at an early age and still meet criteria. There is also some weak evidence that mania is less intense and there is a higher prevalence of mixed episodes, although there may be a reduced response to treatment. Overall there are likely more similarities than differences from younger adults.


The causes of bipolar disorder are multifactorial; that is, many genetic and environmental factors interact (Johnson & Leahy, 2004). Since bipolar disorder is so heterogeneous (varied), it is likely that individuals experience different pathways (Miklowitz & Goldstein, 1997). Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. The monozygotic concordance rate for the disorder is 70%. This means that if a person has the disorder, an identical twin has a 70% likelihood of having the disorder as well. Dizygotic twins have a 23% concordance rate. These concordance rates are not universally replicated in the literature; recent studies have shown rates of around 40% for monozygotic and less than 10% for dizygotic twins (see Kieseppa, 2004 and Cardno, 1999).


It is well established that bipolar disorder is a genetically influenced condition (Johnson & Leahy, 2004; Miklowitz & Goldstein, 1997; Frank, 2005), but it is likely that genes of small effect act together and in combination with other factors. Various genes have been linked in some studies, including GRK3, related to a kinase enzyme called G protein receptor kinase 3, PPARD, and cadherin (FAT). However, several large-scale genome-wide association studies recently conducted have found few reliable associations and little consistency or replication in those that were found; one identified a single nucleotide polymorphism in DGKH (diacylglycerol kinase eta); one identified a locus in a gene-rich region of high linkage disequilibrium (LD) on chromosome 16p12; and one found the most associated single single nucleotide polymorphism was in MYO5B (myosin 5B). A comparison of these studies, together with a new study, has suggested an association with ANK3 (ankyrin G) and CACNA1C, thought to be related to calcium and sodium voltage-gated ion channels.

All the genetic linkage and allelic association studies point strongly to heterogeneity with different genes being implicated in different families. Twin studies suggest that there is virtually no effect from the family environment. The fact that symptoms vary greatly within identical twins indicates that stochastic neurobiological effects are at play. The role of psychological and social processes is still uncertain and many sufferers report inexplicable cyclical patterns.

A recent Swedish study linked children with older fathers to an increased risk of suffering from bipolar disorder. One old case history review found that bipolar disorder appeared to be related to a significantly higher occurrence of mitral valve prolapse (MVP), temporomandibular joint disease (TMJ), and scoliosis, but this work was conducted in 1989-1990 and has not yet been replicated.

Childhood precursors

Some limited long-term studies indicate that children who later receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder may show subtle early traits such as subthreshold cyclical mood abnormalities, full major depressive episodes, and possibly ADHD with mood fluctuation. There may be hypersensitivity and irritability. There is some disagreement whether the experiences are necessarily fluctuating or may be chronic.

Life events and experiences

Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or severe, ongoing family conflict can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder. This may occur by interfering with the development of secure relationships, the development of skills in emotional self-regulation, the regulation of arousal and attention levels, and the development of a coherent sense of self. In addition, parents with mood disorders may confer risk to their children via environmental-psychosocial as well as genetic mechanisms, including through passing on a self-critical style through showing negative emotions and low acknowledgment of infant agency. Such experiences may make developmental challenges more difficult for children.

When faced with a very stressful, negative major life event, such as a failure in an important area, an individual may have his first major depression. Conversely, when an individual accomplishes a major achievement he may experience his first hypomanic or manic episode. Individuals with bipolar disorder tend to experience episode triggers involving either interpersonal or achievement-related life events. An example of interpersonal-life events include falling in love or, conversely, the death of a close friend. Achievement-related life events include acceptance into an elite graduate school or by contrast, being fired from work (Miklowitz & Goldstein, 1997). Childbirth can also trigger a postpartum psychosis for bipolar women, which can lead in the worst cases to infanticide. Some individuals experience subsequent mood episodes in the absence of positive or negative life events, however.

Neural processes

Researchers hypothesize that abnormalities in the structure and/or function of certain brain circuits could underlie bipolar and other mood disorders. Some studies have found anatomical differences in areas such as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. However, despite 25 years of research involving more than 7000 MRI scans, studies continue to report conflicting findings and there remains considerable debate over the neuroscientific findings. Two fairly consistent (in terms of group averages) abnormalities found in a meta-analysis of 98 MRI or CT neuroimaging studies were that groups with bipolar disorder had lateral ventricles which were on average 17% larger than control groups, and were 2.5 times more likely to have deep white matter hyperintensities. Given the size of the meta-analysis, it was concluded that the relatively small number of significant findings was perhaps surprising, and that there may be genuinely limited structural change in bipolar disorder, or perhaps heterogeneity has obscured other differences. In addition, it was noted that averaged associations found at the level of multiple studies may not exist for an individual.

The "kindling" theory asserts that people who are genetically predisposed toward bipolar disorder can experience a series of stressful events, each of which lowers the threshold at which mood changes occur. Eventually, a mood episode can start (and become recurrent) by itself. There is evidence of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) abnormalities in bipolar disorder due to stress.

Recent research in Japan hypothesizes that dysfunctional mitochondria in the brain may play a role (Stork & Renshaw, 2005).

Psychological processes

Psychological studies of bipolar disorder have examined the development of a wide range of both the core symptoms of psychomotor activation and related clusterings of depression/anxiety, increased hedonic tone, irritability/aggression and sometimes psychosis. The existing evidence has been described as patchy in terms of quality but converging in a consistent manner. The findings suggest that the period leading up to mania is often characterized by depression and anxiety at first, with isolated sub-clinical symptoms of mania such as increased energy and racing thoughts. The latter increase and lead to increased activity levels, the more so if there is disruption in circadian rhythms or goal attainment events. There is some indication that once mania has begun to develop, social stressors, including criticism from significant others, can further contribute. There are also indications that individuals may hold certain beliefs about themselves, their internal states, and their social world (including striving to meet high standards despite it causing distress) that may make them vulnerable during changing mood states in the face of relevant life events. In addition, subtle frontal-temporal and subcortical difficulties in some individuals, related to planning, emotional regulation and attentional control, may play a role. Symptoms are often subthreshold and likely continuous with normal experience. Once (hypo)mania has developed, there is an overall increase in activation levels and impulsivity. Negative social reactions or advice may be taken less notice of, and a person may be more caught up in their own thoughts and interpretations, often along a theme of feeling criticised. There is some suggestion that the mood variation in bipolar disorder may not be cyclical as often assumed, nor completely random, but results from a complex interaction between internal and external variables unfolding over time; there is mixed evidence as to whether relevant life events are found more often in early than later episodes.


There are a number of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic techniques used for Bipolar Disorder. Individuals may use self-help and pursue a personal recovery journey.

Hospitalization may occur, especially with manic episodes. This can be voluntary or (if mental health legislation allows it) involuntary (called civil or involuntary commitment). Long-term inpatient stays are now less common due to deinstitutionalization, although can still occur. Following (or in lieu of) a hospital admission, support services available can include drop-in centers, visits from members of a community mental health team or Assertive Community Treatment team, supported employment and patient-led support groups.


The mainstay of treatment is a mood stabilizer medication; these comprise several unrelated compounds which have been shown to be effective in preventing relapses of manic, or in the one case, depressive episodes. The first known and "gold standard" mood stabilizer is lithium, while almost as widely used is sodium valproate, originally used as an anticonvulsant. Other anticonvulsants used in bipolar disorder include carbamazepine, reportedly more effective in rapid cycling bipolar disorder, and lamotrigine, which is the first anticonvulsant shown to be of benefit in bipolar depression.

Treatment of the agitation in acute manic episodes has often required the use of antipsychotic medications, such as Quetiapine, Olanzapine and Chlorpromazine. More recently, Olanzapine and Quetiapine have been approved as effective monotherapy for the maintenance of bipolar disorder. A head-to-head randomized control trial in 2005 has also shown olanzapine monotherapy to be as effective and safe as lithium in prophylaxis.

The use of antidepressants in bipolar disorder has been debated, with some studies reporting a worse outcome with their use triggering manic, hypomanic or mixed episodes, especially if no mood stabiliser is used. However, most mood stabilizers are of limited effectiveness in depressive episodes. Rapid cycling can be induced or made worse by antidepressants, unless there is adjunctive treatment with a mood stabilizer. One large-scale study found that depression in bipolar disorder responds no better to an antidepressant with mood stabilizer than it does to a mood stabilizer alone.


Psychological factors also play a strong role in both the psychopathology of the disorder and the psychotherapeutic factors aimed at alleviating core symptoms, recognizing episode triggers, reducing negative expressed emotion in relationships, recognizing prodromal symptoms before full-blown recurrence, and, practising the factors that lead to maintenance of remission (Lam et al, 1999; Johnson & Leahy, 2004; Basco & Rush, 2005; Miklowitz & Goldstein, 1997; Frank, 2005). Modern evidence based psychotherapies designed specifically for bipolar disorder when used in combination with standard medication treatment increase the time the individual stays well significantly longer than medications alone (Frank, 2005). These psychotherapies are interpersonal and social rhythm therapy for bipolar disorder, family focused therapy for bipolar disorder, psychoeducation, cognitive therapy for bipolar disorder, and prodrome detection.


For some, good prognosis results from good treatment, which, in turn, results from an accurate diagnosis. Because bipolar disorder continues to have a high rate of both under-diagnosis and misdiagnosis, it is often difficult for individuals with the condition to receive timely and competent treatment.

Bipolar disorder can be a severely disabling medical condition. However, many individuals with bipolar disorder can live full and satisfying lives. Sometimes medication is needed to enable this. Persons with bipolar disorder are likely to have periods of normal or near normal functioning between episodes.

Ultimately one's ܧ prognosis depends on many factors, which may, in fact, be under the individual's control, these may include: the right medicines; the right dose of each; a very informed patient; a good working relationship with a competent medical doctor; a competent, supportive and warm therapist; a supportive family or significant other; secure finances and housing, and a balanced lifestyle including a regulated stress level, regular exercise and regular sleep and wake times.

There are obviously other factors that lead to a good prognosis as well, such as being very aware of small changes in one's energy, mood, sleep and eating behaviors, as well as having a plan in conjunction with one's doctor for how to manage subtle changes that might indicate the beginning of a mood swing. Some people find that keeping a log of their moods can assist them in predicting changes.


A recent 20-year prospective study on bipolar I and II has been described as having characterized bipolar by "a low rate of recovery, a high rate of recurrence, and poor interepisodic functioning. However, the study did not report recovery or recurrence rates but that functioning varied along a spectrum from good to fair to poor, and only with periods of major depression or mania (in BPI) was it poor; that depression was more persistantly associated with disability than mania; that interepisodic functioning was near normal; and that subsyndromal symptoms were generally still substantially impairing, although subsyndromal and symptom-level hypomania in BPII was associated with improved functioning.

Another study confirmed the seriousness of the disorder as "the standardized all-cause mortality ratio among patients with BD is increased approximately 2-fold." Bipolar disorder is currently regarded "as possibly the most costly category of mental disorders in the United States." Episodes of abnormality are associated with distress and disruption, and an elevated risk of suicide, especially during depressive episodes.


A naturalistic study from first admission for mania or mixed episode (representing the hospitalized and therefore most severe cases) found that 50% achieved syndromal recovery (no longer meeting criteria for the diagnosis) within six weeks and 98% within two years. 72% achieved symptomatic recovery (no symptoms at all) and 43% achieved functional recovery (regaining of prior occupational and residential status). However, 40% went on to experience a new episode of mania or depression within 2 years of syndromal recovery, and 19% switched phases without recovery.


The following behaviors can lead to depressive or manic recurrence:

  • Discontinuing or lowering one's dose of medication, without consulting one's physician.
  • Being under- or over-medicated. Generally, taking a lower dosage of a mood stabilizer can lead to relapse into mania. Taking a lower dosage of an antidepressant, may cause the patient to relapse into depression, while higher doses can cause destabilization into mixed-states or mania.
  • An inconsistent sleep schedule can destabilize the illness. Too much sleep (possibly caused by medication) can lead to depression, while too little sleep can lead to mixed states or mania.
  • Caffeine can cause destabilization of mood toward irritability, dysphoria, and mania. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that lower dosages of caffeine can have effects ranging from anti-depressant to mania-inducing.
  • Inadequate stress management and poor lifestyle choices. If unmedicated, excessive stress can cause the individual to relapse. Medication raises the stress threshold somewhat, but too much stress still causes relapse.
  • Often bipolar individuals are subject to self-medication, the most common drugs being alcohol, and marijuana. Sometimes they may also turn to hard drugs, which can cause the condition to worsen. Studies show that tobacco smoking induces a calming effect on most bipolar people, and a very high percentage suffering from the disorder smoke.

Recurrence can be managed by the sufferer with the help of a close friend, based on the occurrence of idiosyncratic prodromal events. This theorizes that a close friend could notice which moods, activities, behaviours, thinking processes, or thoughts typically occur at the outset of bipolar episodes. They can then take planned steps to slow or reverse the onset of illness, or take action to prevent the episode from being damaging. These sensitivity triggers show some similarity to traits of a highly sensitive person.


"Mortality studies have documented an increase in all-cause mortality in patients with BD. A newly established and rapidly growing database indicates that mortality due to chronic medical disorders (eg, cardiovascular disease) is the single largest cause of premature and excess deaths in BD. The standardized mortality ratio from suicide in BD is estimated to be approximately 12 to 25, further emphasizing the lethality of the disorder."

Although many people with bipolar disorder who attempt suicide never actually complete it, the annual average suicide rate in males and females with diagnosed bipolar disorder (0.4%) is 10 to more than 20 times that in the general population.

Individuals with bipolar disorder may become suicidal, especially during mixed states such as dysphoric mania and agitated depression. Persons suffering from Bipolar II have high rates of suicide compared to persons suffering from other mental health conditions, including Major Depression. Major Depressive episodes are part of the Bipolar II experience, and there is evidence that sufferers of this disorder spend proportionally much more of their life in the depressive phase of the illness than their counterparts with Bipolar I Disorder (Akiskal & Kessler, 2007).


Varying moods and energy levels have been a part of the human experience since time immemorial. The words "melancholia" (an old word for depression) and "mania" have their etymologies in Ancient Greek. The word melancholia is derived from melas/μελας, meaning "black", and chole/χολη, meaning "bile" or "gall", indicative of the term’s origins in pre-Hippocratic humoral theories. Within the humoral theories, mania was viewed as arising from an excess of yellow bile, or a mixture of black and yellow bile. The linguistic origins of mania, however, are not so clear-cut. Several etymologies are proposed by the Roman physician Caelius Aurelianus, including the Greek word ‘ania’, meaning to produce great mental anguish, and ‘manos’, meaning relaxed or loose, which would contextually approximate to an excessive relaxing of the mind or soul (Angst and Marneros 2001). There are at least five other candidates, and part of the confusion surrounding the exact etymology of the word mania is its varied usage in the pre-Hippocratic poetry and mythologies (Angst and Marneros 2001).

The idea of a relationship between mania and melancholia can be traced back to at least the 2nd century AD. Soranus of Ephesus (98–177 AD) described mania and melancholia as distinct diseases with separate etiologies; however, he acknowledged that “many others consider melancholia a form of the disease of mania” (Cited in Mondimore 2005 p.49).

A clear understanding of bipolar disorder as a mental illness was recognized by early Chinese authors. The encyclopedist Gao Lian (c. 1583) describes the malady in his Eight Treatises on the Nurturing of Life (Ts'un-sheng pa-chien).

The earliest written descriptions of a relationship between mania and melancholia are attributed to Aretaeus of Cappadocia. Aretaeus was an eclectic medical philosopher who lived in Alexandria somewhere between 30 and 150 AD (Roccatagliata 1986; Akiskal 1996). Aretaeus is recognized as having authored most of the surviving texts referring to a unified concept of manic-depressive illness, viewing both melancholia and mania as having a common origin in ‘black bile’ (Akiskal 1996; Marneros 2001).

Avicenna, a Persian physician and psychological thinker who wrote The Canon of Medicine in 1025, identified bipolar disorder as a manic depressive psychosis, which he clearly distinguished from other forms of madness (Junun) such as mania, rabies, and schizophrenia (Junun Mufrit or severe madness).

The basis of the current conceptualisation of manic-depressive illness can be traced back to the 1850s; on January 31, 1854, Jules Baillarger described to the French Imperial Academy of Medicine a biphasic mental illness causing recurrent oscillations between mania and depression, which he termed folie à double forme (‘dual-form insanity’). Two weeks later, on February 14, 1854, Jean-Pierre Falret presented a description to the Academy on what was essentially the same disorder, and designated folie circulaire (‘circular insanity’) by him.(Sedler 1983) The two bitterly disputed as to who had been the first to conceptualise the condition.

These concepts were developed by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926), who, using Kahbaum concept of cyclothymia, categorized and studied the natural course of untreated bipolar patients. He coined the term manic depressive psychosis, after noting that periods of acute illness, manic or depressive, were generally punctuated by relatively symptom-free intervals where the patient was able to function normally.

After World War II, Dr. John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist, was investigating the effects of various compounds on veteran patients with manic depressive psychosis. In 1949, Cade discovered that lithium carbonate could be used as a successful treatment of manic depressive psychosis. Because there was a fear that table salt substitutes could lead to toxicity or death, Cade's findings did not immediately lead to treatments. In the 1950s, U.S. hospitals began experimenting with lithium on their patients. By the mid-'60s, reports started appearing in the medical literature regarding lithium's effectiveness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not approve of lithium's use until 1970.

The term "manic-depressive reaction" appeared in the first American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic Manual in 1952, influenced by the legacy of Adolf Meyer who had introduced the paradigm illness as a reaction of biogenetic factors to psychological and social influences. Subclassification of bipolar disorder was first proposed by German psychiatrist Karl Leonhard in 1957; he was also the first to introduce the terms bipolar (for those with mania) and unipolar (for those with depressive episodes only).

In 1968, both the newly revised classification systems ICD-8 and DSM-II termed the condition "manic-depressive illness" as biological thinking came to the fore.

The current nosology, bipolar disorder, became popular only recently, and some individuals prefer the older term because it provides a better description of a continually changing multi-dimensional illness.

Empirical and theoretical work on bipolar disorder has throughout history "seesawed" between psychological and biological ways of understanding. Despite the work of Kraepelin (1921) emphasizing the psychosocial context, conceptions of bipolar disorder as a genetically based illness dominated the 20th century. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a resurgence of interest and research in to the role of psychosocial processes.

Sociological and cultural aspects

Sometimes people who have Bipolar Disorder feel very alone and misunderstood.

Cultural references

Kay Redfield Jamison is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who profiled her own bipolar disorder in her 1995 memoir An Unquiet Mind and argued for a connection between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity in her 1993 book, Touched with Fire.

Several films have portrayed characters with traits strongly suggestive of the diagnosis which have been the subject of discussion by psychiatrists and film experts alike. The 1993 film Mr. Jones is a notable example, with Richard Gere playing a person who swings from a manic episode into a depressive phase and back again, spending time in a psychiatric hospital and displaying many of the features of the syndrome. Allie Fox, the character played by Harrison Ford in the 1992 movie The Mosquito Coast, displays some features including recklessness, grandiosity, increased goal-directed activity and mood lability, as well as some paranoia.

In the Australian TV drama Stingers, Gary Sweet played the role of Detective Luke Harris from season six, portraying him as having bipolar and how the paranoia he feels as a result of it interferes with his work. As research for the role Sweet visited a psychiatrist to learn about manic depression. He said that he left the sessions convinced he was one.

The Soul Calibur series of games has a character called Tira, a bipolar assassin whose mood would affect how she fights. In her debut game, Soul Calibur III, this feature was dropped, however it is implemented in Soul Calibur IV.

In the NBC drama ER, series of episodes follow Maura Tierney's Abby Lockhart character's relation with her bipolar mother Maggie, and later her brother, who had been misdiagnosed with depression, but who in fact had inherrited BD from Maggie .

TV specials, for example the BBC's The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, MTV's True Life: I'm Bipolar, talk shows, and public radio shows, and the greater willingness of public figures to discuss their own bipolar disorder, have focused on psychiatric conditions thereby raising public awareness.

See also


Cited texts

Further reading

Contemporary first-person accounts on this subject include

  • Jamison, Kay Redfield. 1995. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-330-34651-2.
  • Simon, Lizzie. 2002. Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7434-4659-3.
  • Behrman, Andy. 2002. Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 0-375-50358-7.
  • Lovelace, David. 2008. Scattershot: My Bipolar Family. New York: Dutton Adult, 2008. ISBN 0-525-95078-8.

For a practical guide to living with bipolar disorder from the perspective of the sufferer, see

For a critique of genetic explanations of bipolar disorder, see

For readings regarding bipolar disorder in children, see:

  • Raeburn, Paul. 2004. Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children.
  • Earley, Pete. Crazy. 2006. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-399-15313-6. A father's account of his son's bipolar disorder.
  • About Pediatric Bipolar Disorder:
  • The Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation:
  • Time Magazine checklist for childhood/adolescent bipolarity:
  • A Model IEP for a bipolar child's medication that works correctly:

Classic works on this subject include

  • Kraepelin, Emil. 1921. Manic-depressive Insanity and Paranoia ISBN 0-405-07441-7 (English translation of the original German from the earlier eighth edition of Kraepelin's textbook — now outdated, but a work of major historical importance).
  • Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison (The Free Press: Macmillian, Inc., New York, 1993) 1996 reprint: ISBN 0-684-83183-X
  • Mind Over Mood: Cognitive Treatment Therapy Manual for Clients by Christine Padesky, Dennis Greenberger. ISBN 0-89862-128-3

External links

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