Essential Facts to Know About Bipolar Disorder

**Trigger warning: this post discusses mania, depression, suicide and other topics that may upset those who have lived experience. Please read with caution.**

Bipolar disorder is a complex mental health illness. It affects millions of people (2.6% of the American population), but yet, you may not see the signs for a long time. I have friends that live with this illness and while they do struggle, they also have great days, weeks and even months between episodes.

It hurts my heart when they are not doing so well, but all I can do is support them if they want it. The disorder and its many presentations differ among people, even among episodes. One episode can be a mixed episode, the next can be full-on depression. There is no way of knowing, even if there is a known pattern of episodes.

There are facts that can expand your knowledge of and help someone you know that has bipolar disorder.

Shadow pic

More Than Mood Swings

Almost everyone has mood swings- some days we are happy, some we are sad. In the case of bipolar disorder, these changes affect a person’s ability to function in daily life- work, relationships, school, etc. These changes include mania (“highs”) and depression (“lows”). Suicide attempts are common in those with bipolar disorder, especially during a depressive episode. The risk is even higher when there is a history of previous attempts.

Bipolar disorder can be treated with therapy and medication. Some have issues staying compliant with their medications because of side effects and/or once they feel better, they don’t see the need for medications.

It is vitally important that once medications are started to stay on them unless otherwise directed by the prescribing physician. Many people with this disorder can live full, productive lives. Most people see their first episode between their late teen years and mid-20’s.

What does mania look like?

  • Feelings of euphoria and elation, in some people- this can come out as irritability or anger
  • Impulsive, high-risk behaviors- this varies among people, but this can include spending sprees, sexual promiscuity, daredevil-like behaviors, and drug and/or alcohol abuse.
  • increased energy, rapid speech
  • decreased sleep and appetite
  • disorganized thoughts and difficulty concentrating

What does depression look like?

  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Inability to sleep/sleeping too much
  • Loss of interest in regularly liked activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness/guilt
  • Changes in appetite, weight, or appearance

Causes, Types and Risk Factors

There isn’t a single cause for bipolar disorder, but there are multiple contributing factors.

Genetics- This disorder tends to run in families. Please read Mental Health and Genetics: The Main Connections for more information on how genetics play a role in certain mental health illnesses. Scientists are working on finding abnormalities in specific genes in this case.

Biological- Researchers believe that some neurotransmitters don’t work correctly in the brains of those with bipolar disorder.

Environmental- Outside factors, like a major life change, may trigger a biological reaction or genetic predisposition. It’s hard to know for sure, but it is seen as a possibility.

The Different Types of Bipolar Disorder:

  • Bipolar I: An individual has both manic and depressive episodes of different lengths.
  • Bipolar II: Less severe manic episodes than Bipolar I, but the depressive episodes are the same.
  • Rapid-cycling: experiencing four or more episodes of mania, depression or both within one year
  • Mixed episodes: Mania and depression occur at the same time. This means someone can feel hopeless but yet energetic enough to do risky things.

Risk Factors:

  • A family history of bipolar disorder or other psychological disorders
  • Alcohol and/or substance abuse
  • Major life changes
  • Stress
  • Medication interactions- for example, some antidepressants can induce mania.

Angry cat

Knowing When to Get Help

When someone you care about seems a bit “off” for a period of more than a few days, it may be time to get them to go to a mental health facility, therapist or other assistance. The concern can be sudden or gradual after seeing someone not taking care of themselves, acting out of character, spending large amounts of money, or showing other signs of mental distress.

It may be hard to talk to them about it, but it may be what they need most. Knowing that someone cares for them may be the push they need to get help. Bipolar disorder does not get better on its own.

Their treatment may include medication, CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) or other options as needed. They may even have a co-occurring condition that may also need to be treated. The most common conditions are ADHD, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

If you or someone you care about is in a bipolar episode and experiencing thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide, please get to an ER immediately, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. You can also text HOME to 741741. Both are free.

Support and Love

Those with bipolar disorder need two major things from those they love and care about: support and love. It’s not easy to battle your own mind every day. It can get exhausting. I’ve watched my friends battle through issues with medications, hallucinations, depressive and manic episodes. This is not fun, but they did not choose their chemical makeup. They just try to get through life like the rest of us.

If you love someone with bipolar disorder, please read Mental Illness and Relationships

It can be a bumpy road, as I learned, but it’s entirely worth it.

Pics courtesy of unsplash

Information courtesy of Mayo Clinic

Psych Central

Don't allow your child to be left out of family activities

Helping Your Family Understand Your Child’s Special Needs

Family can be supportive in the best circumstances, but in the worst, can be standoffish and even cruel. When your child receives a special needs diagnosis, it’s hard on everyone. It’s life changing and you will need plenty of support.

Many people, myself included, turn to their family for this support. Some get extremely lucky and their families do everything they can to help out, but some families aren’t as lucky for a few different reasons- distance, lack of family closeness, or just not wanting to get involved because they don’t understand the diagnosis. This can be deliberate.

Storytime!

Julian was diagnosed at five years old and most of Matthew’s family, including his mother, would not listen to anything either of us had to say about ADHD or autism. They thought he was just “hyper” or we just needed to discipline him more.

Okay, then.

He’s been on medication since shortly after his diagnosis, and on sleepovers, my mother in law wouldn’t take those meds with her, even though we explained how to give them. It’s not that hard. One morning, she complained for about the 900th time that Julian barely slept.

Really? I wonder why. He didn’t get his meds.

Matthew had run out of patience at this point, and he’s a very patient man. He looked his mother in the eye and told her that he did not want to hear another word about this if she wasn’t going to give him his meds. She was well aware of how to give him his meds, she just didn’t want to deal with it. She didn’t see the issue- remember, ADHD and autism aren’t a thing.

Julian has not left for a sleepover without his meds since.

The message behind this story? When you decide not to learn about a child’s medication because you don’t see the need for them, it will backfire. Just because you don’t think it’s real, doesn’t mean it isn’t. *gets off soapbox.. storytime over*

Talking to your family about your child's disability

Educate, Educate and Educate Some More

This begins with you, the parent. As soon as your child has a diagnosis, it’s time to do a lot of reading. Depending on the diagnosis, there are books out there you can read, maybe even a podcast or two if you are a fan of those. Learn how to use equipment, read up on sensory bottles, whatever it takes. If you need to, ask for help from your child’s pediatrician, specialists, etc. They are there to be a resource for you.

The more you know, the more you can help your child. They can’t always speak up for themselves, especially around a family that doesn’t understand. Don’t be afraid to challenge these family members- I’m not and they know it. I’m not saying to be rude in this challenge, but definitely come prepared with answers and don’t let anyone walk all over you. Have someone with you as backup if you’re not big on confrontation.

Some people are simply afraid. If they don’t know how to care for a child that needs medical equipment, has a severe food allergy, or is non-verbal, they stay away. If they are interested, have them come to a medical or therapy appointment. This can help them adjust a bit easier to your child’s world and get some questions answered.

The hardest explanation, I believe, is when your child has an “invisible” diagnosis. Julian is one of these kids, and it can be somewhat draining to explain that just because you can’t “see” ADHD and autism, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have it. I don’t think they really want to see him in the middle of a meltdown, because they would have no idea on how to deal.

They do not see the years of therapy, meds, money spent on both, my tears, the fights I had with Matthew to even get him diagnosed, the time I have spent in IEP meetings (or time I spent getting him one) and the sheer energy I have put into making sure he is the adorably funny kid he is.

Create Some Space

Some parents just aren’t able to make things work with their families even after trying to educate, and this may be the result of or part of other issues. This isn’t great, but it happens. It may be time to take a step back from these family members until things improve. This may be painful but the best option for you and your child. It may be stressful for everyone involved to continue to try to make things work when it’s obvious it won’t.

Don't allow your child to be left out of family activities

Build Your Own Circle of Support

Luckily, my mom and sisters are a great support. My mom and Julian are very close. I’ve also been able to create a circle of friends who get what I deal with on a daily basis- their kids are also on the spectrum. I know I can text or call them and they’re available. That is a wonderful feeling. I know that even on a crappy day, I’m not alone and one of them is probably having a day like mine. In fact, one has two kids on the spectrum, so his house is never dull.

Outside of that group, I’ve also joined a few Facebook groups, and they have been a good source of support for questions about ADHD. I’ve also joined some subreddits on the same topics. Internet groups can be a wonderful source of support, especially if you are in a rural area. This can give you a sense of community even if you’re not near an urban area.

If you are in a larger city, I recommend checking out parent groups that center around your child’s diagnosis. I participate in a walk every year with a local autism organization and love it. This year, Julian joined me- I was surprised because he hates being awake before 9 AM on a Saturday, but I was happy to get in the solo time with him. You can find these groups by Googling your city + diagnosis + organization, or a similar search.

I do have friends that either don’t have kids or have kids that aren’t on the spectrum or don’t have ADHD. This is also good. It’s refreshing and they keep me laughing. They cheer us on and cheer me up on the bad days. Everyone should have this. I highly advise finding friends like these.

It’s Fine if Not Everyone Gets It

Your family is meant to be there for you no matter what, but sadly, this doesn’t always work out. Do what you can to educate and include, but don’t stress about the rest. You have much bigger things to worry about- taking care of yourself and your child. Your family will be the ones missing out if they don’t want to come along for the ride.

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