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Overview of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression or bipolar affective disorder. When you have bipolar disorder, your mood is sometimes very low (depression), and sometimes very high (elevated).

Elevated mood can range from a fairly mild high feeling (hypomania) through to extreme elation (mania). With an elevated mood, you might not need to sleep. You could have lots of energy, and talk in an urgent, fast way. You might spend too much money and do other things that are risky.

When your mood is low (depression), you might feel hopeless, helpless or worthless. You might have trouble concentrating, and no longer feel like doing things you used to enjoy. Your sleep could be bad. You might think about dying.

We don't know what causes bipolar disorder. Having other people in your family with bipolar disorder, changes in brain chemistry, and stressful life events may play a part.

Bipolar disorder often starts when you're a teenager, but it may not be diagnosed for several years.

If you have bipolar disorder, it doesn't mean you're just moody. It's a serious illness that affects your day-to-day life. It can make ordinary living very difficult, but with treatment you can usually manage your life well.

Important

If you're concerned about someone's behaviour and think they may harm themselves or someone else, call the police on 111.

If they're safe but in a crisis and need help, you can phone the Depression Helpline on 0800‑111‑757 (available 24/7) or Lifeline 0800‑543‑354 (available 24/7). Or you can contact your local mental health crisis team:

Diagnosing bipolar disorder

It can take a long time for bipolar disorder to be diagnosed. Some people with bipolar disorder take years to experience hypomania or mania for the first time. Sometimes you, people who know you, and even health professionals take a while to realise that your high mood isn't normal for you.

It can be even harder to diagnose bipolar disorder in young people. Mood fluctuations (ups and downs) are common and normal during adolescent years. Most young people who have big ups and downs don't have bipolar disorder, and many people's moods settle as they get older. But if someone has big shifts in mood, a decreased need for sleep, unusual thinking or beliefs, or seems to be acting out of character, it's worth seeing a GP.

There are no specific tests for bipolar disorder. It's often diagnosed by talking to you and your family, and reviewing your symptoms over time.

Treating bipolar disorder

There are lots of ways to get help for bipolar disorder. These usually involve both self-care and getting help from others. Medication normally plays a part too.

Sometimes a person with bipolar disorder gets too sick to look after themselves. They could be at risk of hurting themselves or someone else. At these times, they need to go to hospital. They may either agree to be admitted, or the doctor may admit them as a compulsory patient by using the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992.

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On the next page: Self-care with bipolar disorder

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Department of Psychiatry Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed November 2020.

See also:

Getting help for a mental health issue

Keeping physically healthy with a mental illness or addiction

Medications for mental health issues

Reading in Mind book scheme

Page reference: 496571

Review key: HIBIP-52193