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Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder a mental illness involving mood fluctuations between extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression). Some people with bipolar disorder also experience psychosis and become unable to discern what is real. It typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Bipolar presents differently in everyone with the disorder, but typically involves periods of mania and depression. These periods can last for varying amounts of time, and some people may experience one much more frequently than the other.

A manic episode involves a week or more of symptoms including:

  • Elevated/euphoric mood
  • Increased energy, activity and restlessness
  • Distractability, poor concentration and lack of sleep
  • Heightened beliefs about one's abilities
  • Poor judgement, possibly including spending sprees and provocative behaviour
  • Drug abuse, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping pills
  • Extreme irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • Denial that anything is wrong

A depressive episode involves two weeks or more of symptoms including:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, 'slowing down'
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Sleeping too much, or can't sleep
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss/gain
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Chronic pain or other persistent physical symptoms not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (suicidal ideation) or suicide attempts

Causes and treatment

There is no known cause of bipolar disorder. It is thought there is a genetic component, as roughly 50 percent of people with bipolar have a parent with a mood disorder. Environmental factors could also play a part in triggering the illness, particularly if a person is under stress.

Treatment for bipolar usually involves medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. Medication such as mood stabilisers, anti depressants and anti psychotics are often prescribed to moderate the extreme highs and lows. Talk therapy is often recommended to assist with the management of symptoms. Lifestyle changes like avoiding alcohol and identifying triggers can help maintain mental health once symptoms are under control. Seeing a GP should be the first step in developing a diagnosis or treatment plan for bipolar.

  • On average, it takes ten years and four doctors before an accurate diagnosis is reached

  • Most people are diagnosed in their 20s

  • One in 50 (1.8%) adult Australians experience bipolar disorder each year

  • The diagnosis of bipolar is twice as high in the 17-25 age group

How the Florey is making a difference

Using post-mortem human brain tissue in conjunction with preclinical research, the Florey is working to understand the biochemical changes in the brain that may give rise to bipolar disorder. The Florey also maintains close collaborations with clinicians with a particular interest in bipolar disorder to ensure our research remains at the cutting edge of biological psychiatry.

Support and information

While The Florey researches Bipolar Disorder, we do not offer crisis support. If you require immediate support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. For more information or support contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636. If your life is in immediate danger call 000.

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