Promoting mental health, demystifying mental illness, countering stigma and discrimination

Bi Polar Affective Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder is an illness, a medical condition that affects the functioning of the brain. It is a recurring disorder that affects a person's mood so that they may experience periods of extremely high mood(mania) and/or times when their mood is low(depression). Some people may experience the 'highs' alternating with their normal mood. Others have frequent mood changes, others very few; others may not have any for a number of years. The symptoms generally react well to treatment and most people recover well.

Bipolar Affective Disorder is more than the temporary feelings of being depressed which we often feel when we are stressed or have problems, or of being high when something goes well. The essential feature of bipolar affective disorder is that these feelings are enduring, and are associated with a number of other typical symptoms. They also cause difficulty in a person's ability to participate in everyday activities and relationships. Some people may experience a loss of touch with reality (psychosis) during severe episodes of changed mood.

What are the symptoms?

People with Bipolar Disorder can become very 'high':

  • Overexcited and reckless
  • Feel on top of the world
  • Be more talkative than usual
  • Be angry or aggressive and easily irritated
  • Imagine that they are more important or influential than they are in real life
  • Be unable to make sensible decisions, perhaps spend lots of money, or have uncharacteristic sexual behaviour.

They can also become extremely 'low':

  • Feeling helpless and depressed
  • Experiencing difficulty with making decisions or concentrating
  • Wanting to 'escape' from their mind through sleeping, misuse of alcohol and drugs etc
  • Lose all interest in people
  • Lose or gain weight.

What causes Bipolar Disorder?

The cause is unknown. As with other illnesses, there is likely to be a combination of hereditary and other causes. This disorder is not a character flaw and it is not your fault.

How common is Bipolar Disorder?

Around 1 in every 100 people develop Bipolar Affective Disorder. It most often begins between the ages of 15 and 40 and occurs in approximately the same numbers in all ethnic groups. Most people return to their usual level of functioning after episodes of illness, although about 20-30% will have some ongoing difficulties.

How is Bipolar Disorder diagnosed?
There is no medical test to diagnose bipolar affective disorder. A diagnosis is made when the person has some or all of a set of symptoms. For this reason it is very important for a health professional to get a full understanding of the difficulties a person has had, from both the person and their family/whanau or others who know them well. Bipolar Affective Disorder can be effectively treated and people can recover. The earlier the treatment is started, the better their chances of recovery. 

How is Bipolar Disorder treated?
The primary treatments for mania are medication & effective lifestyle management. Antipsychotic medication is used to control severe mania. The careful use of antidepressants can sometimes help to counteract depression associated with Bipolar Disorder. Individual, family or group therapy and support can help a person with bipolar disorder cope with this illness. Usually, the severity and frequency of the depressive cycles decreases with age.

How can I help myself?
Learn more about the illness. Discuss this information with family/whanau and friends, so that they can help you when you need it most.

Regular exercise, a balanced diet, regular sleeping, relaxation etc. can all help reduce stress and help lift your mood. Drink alcohol in moderation and avoid recreational drugs.
Research the illness on the internet, using reputable reliable sources. See below for some useful links.

For further information and support
The Bipolar/Manic Depressive Society produces a comprehensive guide to the treatment & management of Bipolar Disorder as well as having a range of information & videos available.
Bipolar/Manic Depressive Society Inc.
Box 25068, Christchurch
Tel: (03) 366 581
Balance - NZ - Manic Depressive Bi-Polar Network
76 Virginia Road, Wanganui.
Tel:(06) 345 2264

The following websites provide information on Bipolar Affective Disorder:

a general website providing an A-Z search of Health Topics - search for 'biploar affective disorder'.

a blog written by Christopher Banks providing an insight into the daily life of a man living with bipolar disorder.


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Taranaki Mental Health Sector