Take Bipolar Disorder Seriously

Learn to Recognize Symptoms: Mood Swings, Extreme Highs and Lows

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 9, 2003 -- Call it bipolar disorder. Call it manic depression. It's the same thing, and it's a serious mental illness that can lead to substance abuse, violence, and suicide if not treated.

But most Americans -- 78% -- don't know even the basics about bipolar disorder, according to a new survey.

"The impact of untreated bipolar disorder on a person's life is huge," says Richard C. Birkel, PhD, in a news release. Birkel is executive director of The Nation's Voice on Mental Illness, which commissioned the study along with Abbott Laboratories.

The telephone survey of 1,004 Americans -- including 275 college students -- was released today.

"Overall, Americans do not perceive mental illness to be as serious as other major diseases facing people in this country," the report states.

Other findings:

  • Forty-eight percent of the nation can identify schizophrenia as a mental illness, where as only 22% of people surveyed identified bipolar as a mental illness.
  • Seventy-eight percent failed to name bipolar disorder and could not associate it with any of the risks, such as substance abuse and suicide.
  • Almost four out of 10 (38%) people could not think of a single symptom associated with bipolar disorder.
  • On a 100-point scale, where 100 is most serious, the nation as a whole rates mental illness as a 67 in terms of seriousness compared with other illnesses; 35- to 54-year-old women rate it slightly more serious than the rest of the nation.
  • People over age 55 are least aware of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is caused by imbalances in brain chemicals and affects more than 2 million Americans. Though each case is different, the disorder usually involves periods of mania, followed by depression, with normal moods in between -- hence, the name manic depression.

The mood swings can last for hours, days, weeks, even months.

Though there is no cure for bipolar disorder, it is a treatable and manageable illness, experts say. Medication is an essential part of treatment, to stabilize mood swings. With a therapist's help, people can understand their illness better and develop skills to cope with stresses that trigger mood swings.

Because doctors don't always understand bipolar disorder/manic depression, many people don't get the right treatment.

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SOURCES: The Nation's Voice on Mental Illness, news release, fact sheet.
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