What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of
mania and depression that can last from one day to months.
This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood,
energy and the ability to think clearly. Cycles of high (manic)
and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that
differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most
people. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can have a negative
impact on a person’s life. Damaged relationships or a decline in
job or school performance are potential effects, but positive
outcomes are possible.
Two main features characterize people who live with bipolar
disorder: intensity and oscillation (ups and downs). People living
with bipolar disorder often experience two intense emotional
states. These two states are known as mania and depression. A
manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability
and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the
same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need
for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risktaking
behavior. On the other side, when an individual
experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad,
hopeless and loss of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the
same and the severity of mania and depression can vary.
More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because
of its irregular patterns, bipolar disorder is often hard to
diagnose. Although the illness can occur at any point in life,
more than one-half of all cases begin between ages 15-25.
Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.
What Does Recovery Look Like?
As people become familiar with their illness, they recognize
their own unique patterns of behavior. If individuals recognize
these signs and seek effective and timely care, they can often
prevent relapses. But because bipolar disorder has no cure,
treatment must be continuous.
Individuals who live with bipolar disorder also benefit
tremendously from taking responsibility for their own recovery.
Once the illness is adequately managed, one must monitor
potential side effects.
The notion of recovery involves a variety of perspectives.
Recovery is a holistic process that includes traditional elements
of physical health and aspects that extend beyond medication.
Recovery from serious mental illness also includes attaining,
and maintaining, physical health as another cornerstone of
The recovery journey is unique for each individual. There are
several definitions of recovery; some grounded in medical and
clinical values, some grounded in context of community and
successful living. One of the most important principles of
recovery is this: recovery is a process, not an event. The
uniqueness and individual nature of recovery must be honored.
While serious mental illness impacts individuals in many
challenging ways, the concept that all individuals can move
towards wellness is paramount.
Bipolar disorder presents a special challenge because its manic,
or hypomania, stages can be seductive. People with bipolar
disorder may be afraid to seek treatment because they are
afraid that they will feel flat, less capable or less creative.
These fears must be weighed against the benefits of getting
and staying well. A person may feel good while manic but may
make choices that could seriously damage relationships,
finances, health, home life or job prospects.
It is very common for people living with bipolar disorder to
want to discontinue their medication because of side effects or
because it has been a long time since the last episode of
illness. However, it should be remembered that the progress
one has attained is reliant upon continuing to take medication.
[Download the NAMI bipolar disorder fact sheet.]