What Should I Know about Bipolar Disorder (Manic-Depression)?

Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depression) is a bio-chemical condition that results in an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Genetic make-up is thought to play a role but so too are environmental pressures such as your family, work and social environment, stress, injury, illness and hormone imbalances.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by mood swings that can last for days, weeks or even months. These swings range from mild to severe. The "bi" in bipolar disorder refers to the dual nature of these mood swings - from feelings of great happiness and elation to sadness and despair. In its most severe expression, bipolar disorder can result in mania which is defined as strongly held beliefs that you are a famous person, have special physical abilities or knowledge, or that you are invincible. People can experience mania as a euphoric period. Unfortunately, mania is also accompanied by unwise behaviours tied to the false beliefs. These can include spending sprees, risky sexual activity, excessive drinking or drug use, and other reckless activities or decisions. Bouts of mania are followed by the depths of depression where people feel worthless and hopeless. This phase of bipolar disorder is excruciatingly painful. The mood swings of bipolar disorder deeply affect relationships, social and work functioning and can, in the extreme, bring people into contact with the law.

Symptoms of mania can include the following:

  • feelings of invincibility
  • more physical energy
  • less need for sleep
  • inappropriate excitement
  • irritability or excessive anger
  • increased activity, talking and moving
  • increased sexual thoughts and activity, sometimes resulting in promiscuity and inappropriate or unsafe behaviour
  • disconnected and racing thoughts
  • racing speech
  • loss of self-control and impulsive or reckless behaviour
  • inappropriate spending
  • hallucinations and delusions.

Some symptoms of depression may include:

  • feelings of sadness and loss
  • feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • feelings of extreme impatience, irritability, or a short temper
  • loss of interest or pleasure in usually-enjoyed activities
  • changes in weight or appetite
  • changes in sleeping patterns like insomnia
  • reduced ability to think clearly or make decisions
  • difficulties in concentrating or with short-term memory loss
  • constantly feeling tired
  • noticeable lack of motivation
  • anxiety and restlessness, sometimes leading to panic attacks
  • muscle and joint pain
  • constipation or other intestinal problems
  • frequent headaches
  • lack of interest in sex
  • recurring thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • withdrawal from friends and family.

The aftermath of a manic episode can be devastating both for individuals and for families and loved ones. They may now be dealing with financial hardship, the health and relational effects of risky sexual practices or the physical consequences of substance abuse or personal injury accidents or assaults that may have occurred during mania. The depressive phase can involve the risk of suicide.

Bipolar disorder is a serious illness but with treatment, people can recover and lead fulfilling lives.

If you think you or someone you know has bi-polar disorder it is important to get help from mental health professionals, most often a psychiatrist alone with a team of providers who have a variety of skills. Help involves a diagnosis - which can take some time while the mental health professional gets to know you or person you are concerned about and their symptoms. Next, psychiatric medication will be prescribed. Again, it may take time to get the right one at the right dosage level. You or the person you are concerned about will also learn that people with bipolar disorder do best with a combination of medication and personal therapy - which may extend to family therapy. Peer support and self-help are invaluable as nothing can substitute for the message that "you are not alone."

Living with bipolar illness is not easy but full recovery is possible. The first step is taking personal responsibility for your own health.

Some Statistics:

  • One percent (1%) of Canadians aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a bipolar disorder in the previous 12 months. About 1 in 50 adults aged 25-44 years or 45-64 years reported symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime. The proportion of men and women who met the lifetime criteria for bipolar disorder decreased slightly with age. (2002 Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey, Statistics Canada)
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 Canadians who reported symptoms that met the 12-month criteria for bipolar disorder (86. 9%) reported that the condition interfered with their lives. (2002 Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey, Statistics Canada)
  • While most people with bi-polar disorder (or depression) will not commit suicide, the risk of suicide among those with bipolar disorder is higher than in the general population.

Additional Resources

More information on bi-polar disorder can be found in the Public Health Agency Report: "The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness In Canada 2006".

More information and resources on bi-polar disorder can be found at the following web sties:

Page details

Date modified: