A DS member wrote and asked me to explain Bipolar Disorder so that her family members would understand the condition. She expressed concern that her family has never asked her to explain her diagnosis. This is not uncommon. Often family members are afraid of opening up a dialogue about a loved one's mental health condition. There may be several reasons for this including their own fears about how this affects them and a concern over whether or not the illness runs in families. It may also be that they have experienced some of the negative behaviors that are associated with the illness and they are holding onto resentment or sadness about those experiences. They may be reluctant to inquire about someone's mental health issues because they feel it would be an intrusion. Lastly, the head in the sand approach is often a self-protecting mechanism - if they don't know, it doesn't exist.
For people who suffer with Bipolar Disorder it is their reality and support from family and friends can go a long way towards alleviating the symptoms and improving the quality of life for the sufferer. Bi polar Disorder is a Mood Disorder. There are different types of Bipolar Disorder which are differentiated by the presence of mania or depression and by the amount of time these symptoms are present. An outstanding feature of Bipolar Disorder is the mood lability (or instability) and interpersonal or occupational difficulties. An antiquated but still used term for Bipolar Disorder is Manic Depression and many people find this term easier to understand. While everyone has their ups and downs people with this disorder have major mood swings and the term Bipolar is used to define the presence of two very opposite ends of the emotional spectrum - happiness to the point of mania and sadness to the point of profound depression. There is a high incidence of both drug use (to self-medicate) and suicidal thoughts or acts associated with this psychiatric illness. Risky behaviors are often present and patients with this diagnosis can require close attention in order to maintain their safety.
There is no definitive origin of this disorder but experts believe that there may be a chemical imbalance present in the brain and it has been shown to, in some cases, have a genetic causation. That does not mean that if one family member has the disorder, the others are destined to get it but it does predispose them to the condition and in the presence of certain stressors it may appear. A trauma, drug abuse or severe emotional stress of any kind can trigger an onset of this illness in someone who is inclined towards this diagnosis.
Whenever mood or behavior causes extreme impairment in one's life they should seek the help of a professional. Unfortunately people with Bipolar Disorder don't typically seek treatment on their own (unless it is for a related symptom) but are urged into treatment by a family member or loved one. Someone with extreme mood swings needs to be seen by a medical doctor to rule out a possible medical condition that could be responsible for the change in moods. Since medication is typically prescribed for someone with this disorder the person will need to see an MD, preferably a psychiatrist, who can address the emotional chaos one may feel in their life along with monitoring the medication regimen.
If you are the family member of someone who has this disorder the best thing you can do is to get educated about the illness. Ask your loved one about their experience and help them learn about the symptoms and available treatments. Most often, in the periods between the mood swings, people with this diagnosis can exhibit stable behavior and function relatively normally. As with just about all mental health issues, support and acceptance, when appropriate, are extremely curative.