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Bipolar Disorder: Two-Sided Trouble

The public's understanding of bipolar disorder is often flawed, especially when it hits celebrities.
WebMD Feature

At first glance, legendary music producer Phil Spector and Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins may seem to have little in common, but they both apparently struggle with bipolar disorder. Not that the condition has made the two celebrities behave in the same way.

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What Is the Bipolar Spectrum?

The bipolar spectrum is a term used to refer to conditions of many people with depression, substance abuse, and a wide range of other psychiatric conditions who also have some symptoms of bipolar disorder. Although they have these similar symptoms, they are not diagnosed with bipolar disorder as it is commonly defined. Some psychiatrists find the concept useful. But since it has not been rigorously studied it hasn't been widely adopted.

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Robbins had reportedly been hospitalized and placed on suicide watch shortly after he was suspended from playing this year's Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the hours leading up to the big game in late January, there were accounts of the 29-year-old going on a drinking binge, missing crucial team meetings, and being disoriented and utterly depressed.

Spector, 62, supposedly resisted arrest in early February, minutes after police found the bloodied body of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in the foyer of his Los Angeles mansion. The record producer, responsible for more than a dozen Top 40 Hits in the 1960's ("Be My Baby," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"), was accused of shooting Clarkson in the face and faces first-degree murder charges.

Although Spector has been notorious for his drunkenness and violent behavior over the decades, Rolling Stone reports that in the months before the murder, colleagues had found him sober, pleasant, and productive.

In the Raiders camp, some teammates publicly criticized Robbins for bailing out on the team in the Super Bowl, where Raiders lost to the Bucs 48-21. Despite the center's record of missed games and unexplained absences, guard Frank Middleton says he and many fellow players never knew Robbins as a depressed guy.

What happened to Robbins and Spector, and how did people working closely with them miss what was really going on? Psychiatric experts say a number of factors contribute to society's misconceptions about bipolar disorder and make treatment of it all the more difficult.

The Anatomy of Inner Turmoil

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), people with bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression, usually suffer extreme mood swings, cycling from mania to depression.

In the manic phase, they usually feel invincible, euphoric, hyperactive, and very productive. This could lead to excessively risky behavior, grand delusions, uncontrollable thoughts and actions, irritability, rage, and insomnia. In the depressed phase, they can experience intense sadness, despair, fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, and constant thoughts of suicide.

Robbins once described his problem as 'a battle within your head.' Spector explained his as 'devils inside that fight me.' These are two examples of the emotional challenges affecting the lives of millions of people. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) reports that 2.5 million adult Americans suffer from the chronic disease; other countries reportedly have similar rates.

The good news is that effective treatments exist for manic depression, including medication, counseling, and sometimes a mix of both. The bad news is that many people don't take this life-altering remedy because they are either in denial about their illness, think nothing can help them, or they're misdiagnosed -- usually with depression. It is also common for those who are on drugs to relapse because they stop taking their prescription, often because they think they're getting better.

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