Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a very complex disease that affects between 1 and 2% of the population. It is a brain disorder that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood and behaviour, impacting each and every aspect of one’s home life, professional life and social life. Through no fault of their own, people with bipolar disorder experience mood changes that go from one extreme to the other. In fact, they cycle between three states, namely depression, mania and well-being.


The cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. Genetics however, seem to play a role. This means that you are more likely to develop bipolar disorder if there is a history of this condition in your family. Although certain situations (family problems, overwhelming stress, insomnia, taking certain medications or street drugs, etc.) can trigger episodes of mania or depression, they cannot, under any circumstances, cause this disorder.


There are different types of bipolar disorder, each distinguished by the frequency, duration and intensity of the episodes of mania and depression. Episodes, which are often completely independent of events occurring in the lives of those with the disorder, are peppered with moments of well-being, during which time they feel “normal” and fully functional.

Mania Depression
The start of a manic episode is characterized by an overflow of energy and creativity. This can quickly change to extreme and continued agitation.Caution! During a manic phase, individuals with bipolar disorder are not always euphoric and elated. They may be highly irritable, feel intense anger and exhibit aggressive behaviour.There are many other symptoms, including:

  • Poor concentration
  • Talking very fast and loud, racing thoughts, jumping from one idea to another
  • Hallucinations, delirium
  • Hyperactivity
  • Inflated self-esteem and grandiosity
  • Poor judgement, impulsiveness
  • Need less sleep
Depressive episodes are often characterized by intense, persistent sadness, despair or frustration.During a depressive phase, individuals with bipolar disorder generally exhibit several of the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Change in appetite, weight
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Disrupted sleep (insomnia, hypersomnia)
  • Feelings of guilt or uselessness
  • Sadness, despair


Bipolar disorder generally appears at adolescence or in early adulthood. It affects both men and women equally. Diagnosis is made by a psychiatrist, a doctor who specializes in mental disorders, based on a list of criteria for diagnosis.


There is currently no cure for bipolar disorder. Symptoms however, can be managed through a combination of drugs (medication) and psychosocial treatments. The two main treatment objectives are to alleviate symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse.

The mainstay of treatment is mood stabilizers. They are used to help alleviate symptoms associated with abnormal mood swings. To be truly effective, they must be taken regularly, as prescribed. Add-on medications may also be prescribed for specific problems (ex. anxiety, sleep) or to increase the effectiveness of mood stabilizers.

Psychosocial treatment can begin once symptoms are under control. This type of treatment involves psychoeducation (learning about the disorder), psychotherapy and support groups. Psychotherapy consists of meeting with a therapist and coming up with strategies on how to deal with problems associated with this disorder. For their part, support groups present an opportunity to share and talk with others who are living with the same disorder and dealing with many of the same issues.

It may be difficult for those with bipolar disorder to stick with their treatment plan for several reasons. Firstly, manic episodes, at least at the very beginning, can be welcomed. The tremendous resurgence of energy and euphoria brought on by mania often translates into an extraordinary period of productivity which can be exhilarating. Secondly, after a while, bipolar persons cease to see the importance of treatment and simply stop. And lastly, between episodes, bipolar individuals feel perfectly fine and do not see why they should continue with treatment. It is very important however, that those with bipolar disorder continue to take their medication, as prescribed by their physician, to prevent relapses and to keep the disorder under control.

Living with bipolar disorder

Here are some simple measures that can help those living with bipolar disorder improve their quality of life:

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle: have good sleeping habits, exercise, eat well balanced meals and avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • Learn as much as you can about the disorder, its symptoms and recognizing the warning signs of a manic or depressive episode in order to prevent it.
  • Learn how to manage your stress.
  • Take the medication that is prescribed to you by your doctor.
  • Avoid isolating yourself.

For more information or support

Canadian Mental Health Association