Bipolar Disorder an Overview:
Dipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression is a chronic and very disabling condition. Bipolar disorder is a disorder of instability in mood, behaviors and lifestyle. The main feature of bipolar disorder is a manic episode followed by either another episode of mania at a later point in time, depression or hypomania. In most cases, one or more of these patterns occur repeatedly and chronically over an individual’s lifetime. The overall diagnosis of bipolar disorder is usually bipolar I or bipolar II disorder, with a reference to the most recent episode of “manic, hypomanic or depressed”. Specific symptoms and diagnosis can be found on this website by referring to the bipolar disorder diagnostic pages.
Individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder may have very different symptom patterns. Some episodic symptom patterns seem to have some balance between episodes of mania, depression and hypomania, while others seem to have predominately one symptom pattern. Some researchers have found that among individuals with bipolar I disorder depressive episodes seem to predominate, with over 3.5 times as many weeks of depression relative to weeks experiencing manic episodes or hypomania. Most bipolar individuals will receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder I most- recent episode depressed at some point in their mental health history. Individuals with bipolar II disorder, have 38 times more depressive symptoms than hypomanic symptoms.
People diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience tremendous levels of functional impairment in their lives even while maintained on medication. These deficits in functioning are very comprehensive including work-related, academic and interpersonal functioning. Some studies have found that even while maintained on medicine that deficits in functioning continue for as much is five years after the depressive or manic episodes have remitted. Some researchers (Dion, Tohen, and Anthony, 1998) have concluded that 30% of these individuals were unable to work at all and only 21% were able to work at their previous level of functioning following a manic, depressive or hypomanic episode. Similar findings were also found for individuals already on medication for bipolar disorder. Only a small percentage of manic patients seem able to work consistently following hospitalization. Bipolar disorder is also found to be associated with very high levels of marital and family distress, dysfunction and divorce.
Bipolar Disorder: Some Basic Information
Bipolar disorder has been estimated to affect about 1% to 2% of the general population. These estimates may be even higher levels when considering the entire bipolar spectrum including cyclothymia.
The initial onset of bipolar disorder seems to be in the late teens to early twenties. People with early onset disorder seem to have a higher level of additional comorbid symptoms, including conditions such as substance abuse and anxiety disorders. Also, early onset patients seem to have a more chronic course, with more episodes of depression and to have a higher likelihood of suicidal behaviors.
Men and women both seem to have about the same likelihood of developing bipolar disorder. However, more women than men seem to have the rapid cycling pattern, which is defined as four or more cycles in a year, as well as being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder more often.
People with bipolar disorder seem to experience comorbidity with several other mental health conditions and disorders. The most common comorbid conditions experienced by individuals with bipolar disorder include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. High rates of substance use disorders have been identified in clinical populations as well, with some clinicians believing that the rates may be as high as six times the general population.
The General Course of Bipolar Disorder:
The general course of bipolar disorder is to have repeated manic, depressive and hypomanic episodes that significantly impair an individual’s work and school experiences as well as their personal relationships. Also, these disruptions in functioning may increase the intensity and frequency of the symptoms and episodes. Over the long-term, about three fourths of the individuals who have met the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder will have a relapse within a period of 4 to 5 years, with about half having a relapse the following year. As previously mentioned, the residual impairment in functioning seems to continue even in between symptom episodes.
A number of factors seem to be associated with the increased frequency or likelihood of a mood episode. Stressful life and family experiences seem to delay recovery and increase the rate of relapse. It is believed that stressful family experiences and negative interaction patterns are associated with greater relapse rates.
The high level of comorbidity is also associated with a more difficult course. There appears to be significant evidence to support the fact that anxiety and substance use disorders are particularly significant to the appearance, maintenance and relapse of bipolar symptoms and episodes. Clinical experience also seems to confirm that the comorbid existence of anxiety in addition to bipolar disorder is linked to a reduced likelihood of recovery from a mood episode, reduced ability to function in everyday life, greater likelihood of suicide attempts and a reduced ability to respond to some medications. Comorbid substance abuse disorders often cause an individual to experience poor recovery, increase the level of noncompliance with an individual’s medication routine, and increase the frequency of hospitalization. Some individuals may also experience psychotic episodes during depressive episodes resulting in significantly impaired functioning and relapse.
Suicide is also a great concern among individuals with bipolar disorder. Researchers (Brown, Beck, Steer, and Grisham, 2000) have evaluated the course of over 7000 psychiatric outpatients in Pennsylvania diagnosed according to the DSM-IV criteria and found that among the various mental health diagnosis, bipolar disorder patients have the highest level of completed suicides, followed by major depressive disorder and personality disorders. When compared to what are determined to be relatively average psychiatric patients, patients with bipolar disorder seem to have about a 400% higher risk of suicide followed by major depressive disorder which seems to have about 300% higher risk for suicide.
Bipolar Disorder Treatments:
Optimum treatment for bipolar related disorders includes psychotherapy and mood stabilizing medications. Some the primary psychological treatments include psychoeducation, cognitive behavior therapy, family-focused therapy, and interpersonal social rhythm therapy. Lithium and other mood stabilizing medications have had a high rate of success in stabilizing bipolar symptoms and episodes. Individuals who are noncompliant with their medications continue to have very high rates of relapse however.
Brown, G.K., Beck, A.T., Steer, R.A. & Grisham, J.R. (2000) Risk factors for suicide in psychiatric outpatients: A 20-year prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 371-377.
Dion, G.L.,Tohen, M., and Anthony, W.A., (1998). Symptoms and functioning of patients with bipolar disorder six months after hospitalization. Hospital Community Psychiatry, 39, 652-657.
By Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist
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