It is very normal to have highs and lows in life, but when should you be concerned that your ups and downs are possibly due to a mental health disorder? This tip sheet is a guide to help you understand bipolar disorder. It is not a diagnostic tool. If you believe that you might have bipolar disorders please call the Lawyer Assistance Program or a licensed mental health professional to be evaluated.

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes abnormal shifts in one’s mood. It is potentially very serious, and left untreated can have devastating effects. As well as impacting an individual’s mood, bipolar disorder also can impact ones energy and their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks making it difficult to function. Bipolar disorder can impact relationships, work, and school, and can even lead to suicide. The good news is that although this is a very serious mental health disorder, it can be treated, and the individual can lead a healthy and productive life.

Characteristics of Bipolar Disorder:

Individuals with bipolar disorder experience shifts in their moods that are unusually intense and different from their usual moods. These shifts occur in specific periods called “mood episodes.” Mood episodes can be manic, depressive, or mixed. A manic episode is marked by an overexcited state of happiness, while a depressive episode is indicated by an overwhelming state of sadness or hopelessness.

A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms at the same time. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling agitated
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Hopeless
  • Sad
  • Energized

Causes of Bipolar Disorder:

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of factors. Bipolar disorder often presents itself when an individual is in their late teens or early 20s. About 50% of individuals who develop bipolar disorder experience symptoms by age 25. Therefore, being able to recognize the symptoms is very important. The National Institute of Mental Health outlines symptoms of mania and depression as follows:

Symptoms of mania or a manic episode include:

Mood Changes

  • A long period of feeling “high,” or an overly happy or outgoing mood
  • Extreme irritability

Behavioral Changes

  • Talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Increasing activities, such as taking on new projects
  • Being overly restless
  • Sleeping little or not being tired
  • Having an unrealistic belief in one’s abilities
  • Behaving impulsively and engaging in pleasurable, high-risk behaviors

Symptoms of depression or a depressive episode include:

Mood Changes

  • An overly long period of feeling sad or hopeless
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex.

Behavioral Changes

  • Feeling tired or “slowed down”
  • Having problems concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Being restless or irritable
  • Changing eating, sleeping, or other habits
  • Thinking of death or suicide, or attempting suicide.

Some individuals experience a milder form of mania called hypomania. A hypomanic episode last for at least 4 days with symptoms present for most of each day, and is characterized by an elevated or irritable mood. Examples of symptoms may include:

  • Grandiosity or inflated self-esteem
  • Talks more
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty staying on task
  • Hyper focus on activates
  • Intense focus and involvement in pleasurable activates that may lead to negative consequences, e.g., spending, sexual relationships or investing in risky businesses.

Although hypomanic episodes are typically not severe enough to impede occupational or social functioning, family and friends often recognize the mood change as uncharacteristic of how the person normally functions. In a hypomanic episode, hospitalization is not indicated and there are no psychotic episodes. Individuals with hypomania are usually diagnosed with Bipolar II which is a less severe type of bipolar disorder, but should also be evaluated by a health care professional. Although bipolar disorder cannot be cured, it can be treated very effectively. Treatment usually includes medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

This Tip Sheet has been written by Lisa Caplan. Lisa is a Licensed Certified Social Worker at the clinical level (LCSW-C) and a Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC). She has over 15 years experience in her field, and extensive experience working with lawyers and judges in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and trauma.

For Assistance Please contact the Lawyer Assistance Program for free, confidential assistance. Jim Quinn, Lawyer Assistance Director, 443.703.3041, jquinn@msba.org; Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C, CAC, Lawyer Assistance Counselor, 443.703.3042, lcaplan@msba.org. Toll free 800.492.1964