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Bipolar Disorder: An Overview

What is bipolar disorder? I'm worried about my son. He's showing symptoms of depression or some other mental illness, but I don't know enough to be sure. If he is bipolar, does he have any hope of leading a normal life?

What bipolar disorder looks like

Bipolar disorder is a relatively common mental illness affecting millions of Americans. It’s sometimes known as “manic depressive illness.” Both names refer to the dramatic opposite-pole mood swings that characterize the condition.

It’s normal for everyone to have changes in mood. But the fluctuations associated with bipolar disorder are extreme – with the possibility of terrible consequences.

The glaring ups and downs of bipolar disorder happen in a repeating cycle:

  • The pattern usually starts with the “manic” phase – an episode of elevated, euphoric, and sometimes irritable feelings and behavior, lasting about a week or more.
  • That’s followed by a much longer “depressive” period – a time of severe depression, decreased energy, and lack of motivation.

Age of onset is typically between the late teens and early twenties, but bipolar disorder can develop in children and adults at any age.

Causes of bipolar disorder

The causes of bipolar disorder are complex and uncertain. Many factors can be involved, including genetics, environment, and certain medical conditions.

Ultimately, however, the mood swings are the result of a disruption in brain function. They’re traceable to imbalanced neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) that are beyond the individual’s control.

In other words, people affected by this illness have no reason to feel ashamed of their condition. It’s not due to poor choices or foolish behavior on their part.

Diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder

Because the disorder is largely physical and chemical in origin, diagnosis and treatment lie mainly under the care of trained and experienced physicians and psychiatrists. People affected can lead relatively normal, productive, and meaningful lives through a balanced combination of medical, psychological, and spiritual care:

  • Prescription mood-stabilizing drugs (combined in some cases with antidepressants)
  • Christian counseling
  • Educational and motivational therapy
  • Support of family, friends, and church
  • Spiritual awakening

Call us for help

If you’d like to talk with a member of our staff, don’t hesitate to call our licensed counselors for a free over-the-phone consultation. They’d be more than happy to speak with you about your concerns. And they can provide referrals to trained therapists in your area.

In the meantime, for more thoughts about bipolar disorder, you can look at our Counseling department’s information sheet “Bipolar Disorder: A Brief Overview.”


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Bipolar Disorder: A Brief Overview

Focus on the Family’s Mental Health Webpage

Focus on the Family’s Mental Health Resource List

Grace for the Afflicted

The National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute of Mental Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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