Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder affects 10 million people in America, or approximately one percent, touching the lives of men and women equally. It is a chronic and generally life-long condition with recurring episodes that often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, and occasionally even in childhood.

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a mood disorder in which people experience symptoms of both mania and depression, sometimes appearing as separate episodes and other times simultaneously. John, a Housing Options resident, describes his disorder as “a spiral experience.”

For those experiencing mania, it is characterized by elation, irritability, excitability, racing thought and speech, and hyperactivity. Major depression is characterized by sadness, withdrawal, despair, and suicidal thoughts. Episodes can last from days to months. As one resident explained, “One day, you will be unable to get out of bed, and the next, will be convinced that your whole life is going as planned. In either an up or down cycle, you can neglect your physical and mental well being.”

It can be a long journey from diagnosis to recovery, and even then, episodes can and do continue to occur. John and Joanne, two Housing Options residents, have been living with the disease for over 35 years between them, and both have experienced recovery as well as the episodes that follow. “I used to volunteer a lot, but after each episode, I’m nervous to go back to it. After each episode, you have to start all over,” Joanne says. Of his own recovery, John says,

It includes a lot of confidence building. There is this feeling that there is a certain part of you that can’t be relied on. Because of this, confidence needs to grow more and more in what you’re doing day to day.

While the exact cause of bipolar disorder is not known, most researchers believe it is the result of a chemical disorder of the brain. In a brain affected by bipolar disorder, the nerve cells are not able to signal to one another in the same way as in an unaffected brain. There is also a genetic predisposition to the illness. Bipolar episodes can be triggered by serious life events, but it is important to note that they can and often do occur without any obvious trigger: “You can do things on the straight and narrow, but there are no guarantees that you won’t have a break,” Joanne explains.

The most frightening byproduct of the illness is the increased risk of suicide. Individuals with bipolar disorder have a suicide rate 15-22 times that of the national average. Joanne’s sister with bipolar disorder committed suicide prior to Joanne’s diagnosis; “I was in denial for 15 years that we shared the disease.”

Because bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, long-term preventive treatment is strongly recommended and almost always indicated. A strategy that combines medication of “mood stabilizers” and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time. “Finding a balance of mood is not just about medications; it’s being able to piece the medications and treatments with the individual’s own strategies for managing life, activities, goals and aspirations in a way that supports a good balance,” says Claire Purkis, Director of Program Services.

As it is a treatable disease, individuals with bipolar disorder are able to attain this balance and success in their lives. John is on his way to completing a computer science degree program, and Joanne, an avid volunteer, is looking forward to new volunteer opportunities. Success has been attained by many people with bipolar disorder whose names you will recognize: Jim Carrey, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, and Sting, to name a few. Regarding these individuals, Claire says, “It’s important that famous people have disclosed the truth about their bipolar disorders. It helps society to come out of the dark ages when talking about mental illnesses. As a society we are working towards a point where we can understand that they are indeed medical issues.”

Information included in this article was obtained from and