What is bipolar disorder?

Dr Sarah Jarvis discusses bipolar disorder (also called manic depression) and offers some advice on what to do if your child is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is sometimes known as manic depression. People who get it suffer from two extreme changes in their mood:

  • Depression, where your mood is very low. You may also have problems with sleeping, appetite, socialising or feeling guilty or tearful.
  • Mania, where your mood is very ‘high’. This may sound like a good thing, but in mania (or hypomania, when the symptoms are less extreme) you’re likely to be very unrealistic about your limitations. This might lead to you behaving irresponsibly (for instance, spending lots of money you don’t have), taking dangerous risks or making rash decisions (such as giving up your job on the spur of the moment). In severe mania, you can lose touch with reality and have ‘delusions of grandeur’. You will usually have no insight into the fact that your mood and behaviour are not normal.

Can it be cured?

Once someone has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they will have it for life. However, they will tend to get phases of depression, phases of mania and times when they are well. What is more, there are more and more effective treatments, which can cut down the frequency (and severity) of these episodes dramatically.

Without treatment, symptoms of mania will last, on average, for four months and episodes of depression last on average six to nine months, although both can last longer than this. About half of sufferers will have a second episode of mania within a year, but up to three in 10 people won’t have another episode for at least five years.

Who gets it?

Bipolar disorder affects about 1 in 100 people in their lifetime. Although it can start at any age, it most commonly starts between the ages of 18 and 24, and men and women are equally affected.

My child has bipolar disorder – how can I help?

  • The first step is not to blame yourself – bipolar disorder has absolutely nothing to do with how you brought your child up.
  • The second is to understand the condition. If your child is in a ‘high’ phase, they may get very irritated if you try to make them ‘see reason’. It’s really important to remember that they can’t help their behaviour.
  • Thirdly, helping your child to keep taking their medication when they’re well is key to preventing relapse.
  • Fourthly, street drugs and alcohol can make bipolar disorder much worse. You may need to avoid having alcohol in the house.
  • Learn to recognise the early symptoms and encourage your child to seek medical help.

My child has mental health problems – where can I get help?

If your ‘child’ is over 18, their GP cannot usually give out information about them without their consent. However, if they have mental illness which affects their ability to understand how ill they are, their GP can discuss their care with you.

Even if the GP can’t talk about your child’s individual case, they can give you lots of general advice about the condition and how to help. Many charities offer support and a network of self-help groups all over the UK for sufferers and their families, including:

For bipolar disorder, contact Bipolar UK
For depression, contact Depression Alliance
For any mental illness, contact MIND

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.