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Bipolar Disorder Health Center

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Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

Mental health problems are frequently complicated by substance abuse, putting patients in need of special care.


Among the areas where this research is most prominent is a condition known as bipolar disorder -- a disease characterized by cycles of extreme mood swings between deep depression and high elation, or mania. During periods of mania, patients show extreme irritability, racing thoughts, little need for sleep, poor judgment, distractibility, abuse of drugs, and denial that anything is wrong. Depressive periods are associated with feelings of hopelessness, guilt, too much sleep, and thoughts of death or suicide.

"What we have found is that people with bipolar disorder, particularly women, have an enormously high rate of alcoholism -- up to seven times that of the general population," says Mark Frye, MD, director of the UCLA Bipolar Disorder Research Program in Los Angeles.

This is also true, says Frye, when both male and female bipolar patients are compared to those with other forms of mental illness.

And while the reason remains unclear, Frye tells WebMD that there is at least some evidence that the two conditions share many similarities.

Indeed, as the age of "brain science" continues to mature, a number of researchers have begun to note some startling similarities within the brain chemistry patterns of various types of mental health problems and substance abuse. Some of the more interesting discoveries had to do with animal models of addiction.

"Research on rats showed us that there were certain pleasure centers of the brain that, when stimulated, elicited such a powerful response, the animal would opt for stimulation over food," says Francis Hayden, MD, associate director of the division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse at Bellvue Hospital in New York.

This discovery, he says, led many researchers to question whether there was something different about the brains of substance abusers that "causes them to kind of feel not quite right -- so that when they happen upon a substance, it kind of normalizes them in a way," says Hayden.

That feeling of "not quite right," he says, may be the mental health problem at work.

Another indication that they may be one disease: Studies that show that when one condition worsens, the other is soon to follow suit.

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