Bipolar Disorder -- Three Things You Should Know

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Bipolar disorder is a mental health illness that involves extreme, unpredictable mood swings, from unhealthy high energy (mania) to concerning depression. While less common in those over age 65, it can nonetheless affect older adults. Every caregiver should be familiar with three important facets of bipolar disorder.

What Do Manic Episodes and Mania Look Like

Recognizable symptoms include:

  • Long periods of extreme euphoria
  • Irritability
  • Fast talking or jumping from one thought to another
  • Needing little sleep
  • Unrealistic ideas about one's capabilities
  • Engaging in high-risk but pleasurable activities
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Substance abuse (less common among older adults)

All those with bipolar disorder experience manic episodes, but not all will experience depression.

Recognizing Depressive Episodes and Depression

Recognizable symptoms include:

  • Long periods of sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Fatigue/low energy
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeping more or insomnia
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

Using Medications to Treat Bipolar

Several types of medication are used to treat bipolar disorder.

  • Mood stabilizers: The FDA warns that these most commonly prescribed medications may increase risk of suicidal thoughts. Patients taking mood stabilizers should be closely monitored for unusual changes in behavior.
  • Atypical antipsychotics: Often used to treat mania, these may cause changes in a metabolism. Patients on atypical antipsychotics should be monitored for increased risk of developing diabetes or high cholesterol.
  • Antidepressants: Often taken with other medication, these treat depression only. Taking an antidepressant alone can increase the risk of manic episodes.

Using Therapy to Treat Bipolar

When done in combination with medication, several types of psychotherapy are helpful for those with bipolar disorder.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Helps patients change negative thought patterns
  • Family-focused therapy: Involves loved ones in recognizing symptoms and learning problem-solving techniques
  • Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy: Helps patients manage daily routines, including consistent sleep schedules and exercise, which can lessen the frequency of manic and depressive episodes

In addition to psychotherapy, general support groups may be beneficial.

Caring for Someone With Bipolar Disorder

For Your Loved One
There are many steps you can take to support your loved one who seeks treatment for bipolar disorder.

  • Learn more about bipolar disorder.
  • Keep track of symptoms.
  • Listen to your loved one.
  • Recognize small accomplishments.
  • Provide ongoing patience and encouragement.
  • Create a plan for emergencies in case symptoms become severe or hospitalization is required.

For Yourself
Remember to take care of yourself; it's important for your own health as well as the success of your loved one's treatment. Building a support network of friends and relatives may not only help your loved one but you as well.

Sara Rattigan

Sara Rattigan received her MS in Health Communication from Tufts University School of Medicine in 2009 but discovered her passion for health promotion nearly a decade earlier as editorial assistant for StudentAdvantage. See full bio