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Bipolar Disorder

Suicide Risk

Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal. Anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or a physician, or a school counselor. Risk for suicide appears to be higher earlier in the course of the illness. Therefore, recognizing bipolar disorder early and learning how best to manage it may decrease the risk of death by suicide.

Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. See suicide for hotlines to call for immediate help.

Signs and symptoms that may accompany suicidal feelings include:
 Talking about feeling suicidal or wanting to die
 Feeling hopeless, that nothing will ever change or get better
 Feeling helpless
 Feeling like a burden to family and friends
 Abusing alcohol or drugs
 Putting affairs in order (e.g. giving away
possessions, or organizing finances to prepare for one's death)
 Writing a suicide note
 Putting oneself in harm's way

If you are feeling suicidal or know someone who is:
  Call a doctor, emergency room, or 911 right away to get immediate help
  Make sure you, or the suicidal person, are not left alone
  Make sure that access is prevented to large amounts of medication, weapons, or other items that could be used for self-harm

While some suicide attempts are carefully planned over time, others are impulsive acts that have not been well thought out; thus, the final point in the box above may be a valuable long-term strategy for people with bipolar disorder. Either way, it is important to understand that suicidal feelings and actions are symptoms of an illness that can be treated. With proper treatment, suicidal feelings can be overcome.

What is the Course of Bipolar Disorder?

Episodes of mania and depression typically recur across the life span. Between episodes, most people with bipolar disorder are free of symptoms, but as many as one-third of people have some residual symptoms. A small percentage of people experience chronic unremitting symptoms despite treatment.

The classic form of the illness, which involves recurrent episodes of mania and depression, is called bipolar I disorder. Some people, however, never develop severe mania but instead experience milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with depression; this form of the illness is called bipolar II disorder. When four or more episodes of illness occur within a 12-month period, a person is said to have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Some people experience multiple episodes within a single week, or even within a single day. Rapid cycling tends to develop later in the course of illness and is more common among women than among men.

People with bipolar disorder can lead healthy and productive lives when the illness is effectively treated. Without treatment, however, the natural course of bipolar disorder tends to worsen. Over time a person may suffer more frequent (more rapid-cycling) and more severe manic and depressive episodes than those experienced when the illness first appeared. But in most cases, proper treatment can help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes and can help people with bipolar disorder maintain good quality of life.

Can Children and Adolescents Have Bipolar Disorder?

Yes. Both children and adolescents can develop bipolar disorder. It is more likely to affect the children of parents who have the illness. Unlike many adults with bipolar disorder, whose episodes tend to be more clearly defined, children and young adolescents with the illness often experience very fast mood swings between depression and mania many times within a day. Children with mania are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive tantrums than to be overly happy and elated. Mixed symptoms also are common in youths with bipolar disorder. Older adolescents who develop the illness may have more classic, adult-type episodes and symptoms.

Bipolar disorder in children and adolescents can be hard to tell apart from other problems that may occur in these age groups. For example, while irritability and aggressiveness can indicate bipolar disorder, they also can be symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or other types of mental disorders more common among adults such as major depression or schizophrenia.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Scientists are learning about the possible causes of bipolar disorder through several kinds of studies. Most scientists now agree that there is no single cause for bipolar disorder. Many factors act together to produce the illness.

Because bipolar disorder tends to run in families, researchers have been searching for specific genes that may increase a person's chance of developing the illness. But genetics are not the whole story. Studies of identical twins, who share all the same genes, indicate that both genes and other factors play a role in bipolar disorder. If bipolar disorder were caused entirely by genes, then the identical twin of someone with the illness would always develop the illness, and research has shown that this is not the case. But if one twin has bipolar disorder, the other twin is more likely to develop the illness than is another sibling.

In addition, findings from gene research suggest that bipolar disorder, like other mental illnesses, does not occur because of a single gene. It appears likely that many different genes act together, and in combination with other factors of the person or the person's environment to cause bipolar disorder.

Brain-imaging studies are helping scientists learn what goes wrong in the brain to produce bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. There is evidence from imaging studies that the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy individuals. As the differences are more clearly identified and defined through research, scientists will gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of the illness, and eventually may be able to predict which types of treatment will work most effectively.

How is Bipolar Disorder Treated?

Most people with bipolar disorder even those with the most severe forms can achieve substantial stabilization of their mood swings and related symptoms with proper treatment. Because bipolar disorder is a recurrent illness, long-term preventive treatment is strongly recommended and almost always indicated. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.

In most cases, bipolar disorder is much better controlled if treatment is continuous than if it is on and off. But even when there are no breaks in treatment, mood changes can occur and should be reported immediately to your doctor. The doctor may be able to prevent a full-blown episode by making adjustments to the treatment plan.

Working closely with the doctor and communicating openly about treatment concerns and options can make a difference in treatment effectiveness. In addition, keeping a chart of daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events may help people with bipolar disorder and their families to better understand the illness. This chart also can help the doctor track and treat the illness most
effectively.

Medications

Medications for bipolar disorder are prescribed by psychiatrists, medical doctors and nurse practitioners with expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. While primary care physicians who do not specialize in psychiatry also may prescribe these medications, it is recommended that people with bipolar disorder see a psychiatrist for treatment.

Medications known as 'mood stabilizers' usually are prescribed to help control bipolar disorder. Several different types of mood stabilizers are available. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for extended periods of time (years). Other medications are added when necessary, typically for shorter periods, to treat episodes of mania or depression that break through despite the mood stabilizer. Lithium, the first mood-stabilizing medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of mania, is often very effective in controlling mania and preventing the recurrence of both manic and depressive episodes.

Anticonvulsant medications, such as valproate (Depakote) or carbamazepine (Tegretol), also can have mood-stabilizing effects and may be especially useful for difficult-to-treat bipolar episodes.

Newer anticonvulsant medications, including lamotrigine (Lamictal), gabapentin (Neurontin), and topiramate (Topamax), are being studied to determine how well they work in stabilizing mood cycles. Aripiprazole (Abilify) is indicated for the treatment of schizophrenia and acute manic and mixed episodes associated with bipolar disorder.

Atypical antipsychotic medications, including clozapine (Clozaril), olanzapine (Zyprexa), risperidone (Risperdal), and ziprasidone (Zeldox), are being studied as possible treatments for bipolar disorder. Evidence suggests clozapine may be helpful as a mood stabilizer for people who do not respond to lithium or anticonvulsants. Other research has supported the efficacy of other drugs for acute mania.

Medication Side Effects

Before starting a new medication for bipolar disorder, always talk with your psychiatrist and/or pharmacist about possible side effects. Depending on the medication, side effects may include weight gain, nausea, tremor, reduced sexual drive or performance, anxiety, hair loss, movement problems, or dry mouth. Be sure to tell the doctor about all side effects you notice during treatment. He or she may be able to change the dose or offer a different medication to relieve them. Your medication should not be changed or stopped without the psychiatrist's guidance.

Psychosocial Treatments

As an addition to medication, psychosocial treatment including certain forms of psychotherapy are helpful in providing support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Studies have shown that psychosocial interventions can lead to increased mood stability, fewer hospitalizations, and improved functioning in several areas. A licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor typically provides these therapies and often works together with the psychiatrist to monitor a patient's progress. The number, frequency, and type of sessions should be based on the treatment needs of each person.

Psychosocial interventions commonly used for bipolar disorder are cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, family therapy, and a newer technique, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy. NIMH researchers are studying how these interventions compare to one another when added to medication treatment for bipolar disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people with bipolar disorder learn to change inappropriate or negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with the illness.

Psychoeducation involves teaching people with bipolar disorder about the illness and its treatment, and how to recognize signs of relapse so that early intervention can be sought before a full-blown illness episode occurs. Psycho-education also may be helpful for family members. Family therapy uses strategies to reduce the level of distress within the family that may either contribute to or result from the ill person's symptoms.

As with medication, it is important to follow the treatment plan for any psychosocial intervention to achieve the greatest benefit.


Resources for More Information

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Phone: (301) 443-4513
Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov

Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation
1187 Wilmette Avenue
Wilmette, IL 60091
Phone: (847) 256-8525
Web site: http://www.bpkids.org

Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association (DRADA)
Johns Hopkins Hospital,
Meyer 3-181
600 North Wolfe Street
Baltimore, MD 21287-7381
Web site: http://www.drada.org

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Blvd., 3rd
Arlington, VA 22201-3042
Toll-Free: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
Phone: (703) 524-7600; Fax: (703) 524-9094
Web site: http://www.nami.org

Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
730 North Franklin Street
Chicago, IL 60610-7204
Toll-Free: 1-800-826-3632
Phone: (312) 642-0049; Fax: (312) 642-7243
Web site: http://www.DBSAAlliance.org

National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc. (NAFDI)
P.O. Box 2257
New York, NY 10116
Toll-Free: 1-800-239-1265
Web site: http://www.depression.org

National Mental Health Association (NMHA)
2001 N Beauregard Street
12th floor Alexandria, VA 22311
1-800-969-NMHA (6642)
Phone: (703) 684-7722;
Fax: (703) 684-5968
Web site: http://www.nmha.org

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