Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
North Wales Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is also sometimes called manic depression, bipolar affective disorder or bipolar mood disorder.
Bipolar disorder is an illness in which there are extreme changes or swings in mood.
Everyone has times in their life when they feel very happy (such as when you are about to go on holiday) or very sad (such as when your pet dies). But it only becomes a disorder when the mood changes are unusual or extreme. This can range from being unusually happy (known as mania or hypomania), to being unusually sad (depression) for no apparent cause.
What causes it?
Although the causes are not fully understood, bipolar disorder tends to run in families. In people who have bipolar disorder, episodes may happen at times of stress or disrupted sleep.
How common is it?
Bipolar disorder is extremely rare in young children, but there are quite a few studies that suggest that it may start in teenage years and in early adult life. It affects about 1 in 100 adults.
What are the symptoms?
In bipolar disorder a person can have:
There are different types of this disorder depending on how severe the symptoms are or how long they last.
The mood changes can sometimes happen very rapidly within hours or days (sometimes called rapid cycling). For some people, the mood symptoms are less severe (sometimes called ‘cyclothymia’).
In between the highs and lows, there are usually ‘normal’ periods that can last for weeks or months. However, for some people, especially when they have had the disorder from some time, these periods of ‘normalcy’ can be shorter.
Below is a list of the sort of symptoms that can occur in each type of episode. You need to have at least one manic or hypomanic episode to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
You need to have several symptoms at the same time for at least several days. If there is just one symptom, then it is unlikely to be bipolar disorder.
Symptoms that can occur during a ‘high’ or manic episode:
Hypomania is a milder form of mania (less severe and for shorter periods). During these periods people can feel very productive and creative and so see these experiences as positive and valuable.
However, hypomania, if left untreated, can become more severe, and may be followed by an episode of depression. At the extreme end, some people also develop something called ‘psychosis'.
Symptoms that can occur during a depressive episode
On the milder end, you may just feel sad and gloomy all the time. Here too, at the extreme end, some people can develop psychosis.
Symptoms that can occur during a mixed episode
What effects can bipolar disorder have?
The exaggerated thoughts, feelings and behaviours can affect many aspects of life and can lead to, for example:
How is it treated?
In the short term, depending on whether you are high or low and how severe it is, you may need different treatments.
When you have severe symptoms, you may need medications and also sometimes admission to hospital to help your symptoms and also keep you safe.
In the long term, the goal of treatment is to help you have a healthy, balanced and productive life. This would include understanding the condition, controlling the symptoms and preventing the illness from coming back.
Below we briefly describe each aspect of the treatment.
Help with understanding yourself and the illness (psychoeducation)
It is very important that you and your family are helped to understand bipolar disorder, how best to cope and what to do to reduce the chances of it coming back. You and your family may notice ‘triggers’ to your episodes and / or early warning signs that an episode is starting. Being aware of these can help reduce the chance of episodes occurring and getting help in the earliest stages of an episode can stop it from getting worse.
Talking treatments (also known as ‘psychological therapies’)
These may include different types of therapies like:
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
The young person, sometimes with their family, learns to understand the links between their feelings and thoughts and how this affects their behaviour.
Family-focused treatment (Family Therapy)
The whole family can be helped to reduce stress, solve problems and communicate better.
Medication plays an important role in the treatment of bipolar disorder, especially if episodes are severe.
The choice of medication can depend upon the type of episode (manic or depressed). Everyone is different, and so the type of medication that is recommended will also be different.
Medications can have mild or even severe side-effects. Your psychiatrist will be able to advise about what they are and about what can be done to help. The risk of side-effects needs to be balanced against the risk of the damaging effects of the illness on a person's life.
Antipsychotic medications are usually used for high / manic episodes, while antidepressant medications are used for the low / depressive episodes. You may also need medications called mood stabilizers (e.g. lithium) which help to keep your mood stable both during and between episodes.
It is important that medications are not taken only when the problems are serious. If you have had more than one severe episode of illness, staying on medication is important to reduce the risk of further episodes. Medication may be needed for months or even years. Some people may, under medical supervision, be able to stop their medication when they have recovered and have felt well for a while.
You may need physical examination and tests (like blood test) before starting or while you are on medication. It is important that if you are prescribed medication, you are regularly seen by your doctor or psychiatrist.
How long will I have the illness?
The high or low episodes can last from a few weeks to months. It is important to recognise that you are not alone and to keep up hope. Some people only have one or two episodes. For others the highs and lows can occur through their adult life. When this happens, it is important that you learn to live with it and manage it.
What can I do?
How do I get help?
You may need to see your GP to talk about your concerns. They can then refer you to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) who can offer more specialist help.
If you have a school counsellor / nurse or learning mentor, they can also be a useful person to talk to and may also be able to refer you to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
MDF The Bipolar Association
Helps people with bipolar disorder / manic depression, their relatives, friends and other who care.
CALL - Community Advice & Listening Line
Mental health helpline for Wales offering a confidential listening and support service.
Helpline: 0800 132 737 Open 24/7
Rethink Mental Illness
A charity which helps people affected by a severe mental illness to revoer a better quality of life.
A national charity which improves the quality of life for people affected by mental illness.
The STEADY Project
A self-management training programme for young people (aged 18-25) with bipolar disorder.
A charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.