Bipolar disorder, previously called manic-depressive disease, is a not a new diagnosis. But it is one being made with increasing frequency, particularly in children and young adults. In psychiatry diagnoses are legion, but they all fall into one of three categories: disorders of mood, thinking, or personality. Bipolar disorder is a problem in the sphere of mood, described in the 1880s by Emil Kraepelin, the German psychiatrist whose Compendium der Psychiatre was the world’s first systematic classification of mental disorders. At the time, psychiatrists recognized separate illnesses called mania and melancholia, but Kraepelin was the first to see that some patients cycled between these opposite poles of mood. Over time, the term cyclical insanity gave way to manic-depressive disease, and finally to bipolar disorder, type I or type II (the milder variety). Melancholia is now called unipolar depression and mania is no longer a diagnosis but rather a behavioral symptom in all kinds of psychiatric disorders.
Normal ups and downs in mood
Everyone has ups and downs in mood. Mood involves both subjective feelings and outward behaviors. It is clear from “normal” mood swings that both internal and external factors influence ups and downs. Many of those factors, such as sleep, stress, physical activity, diet, and abuse of alcohol, nicotine and drugs, also affect general health.
The definition of mood disorder
Normal ranges of mood vary greatly from person to person, so the psychiatric definition of “mood disorder” rests on the degree to which disrupted behavior interferes with carrying out the normal activities necessary for functioning at a given stage of life. Clearly abnormal symptoms like hallucinations, which define the thinking disorder schizophrenia, may also appear in bipolar type I. New genetic work suggests that mood and thinking disorders are not as separate as our classification systems try to make them, so it is not surprising that symptoms at times overlap.
The down side of the mood spectrum
Depression, the low side of the mood spectrum, robs a person of interest and joy in his activities. He has little energy, sleeps more than usual, or may be unable to sleep through the night, waking up anxiously at two or three AM. He may gain or lose weight. He tends to ruminate, repetitively chewing over negative thoughts. Sadness permeates his world. Of course these same symptoms can be completely appropriate responses to terrible life events that cause profound grief. A depressed mood becomes abnormal when it occurs or persists unrelated to circumstances, blocks the activities necessary for normal life, and/or includes persistent thoughts of death or suicide.
The up side
At the other end of the mood spectrum, mania, the mind speeds up. Thoughts are rapid, distractibility is high, speech is pressured, and ideas become grandiose. Sleep isn’t necessary. The manic person engages in risky behaviors and feels invincible. He undertakes grand schemes, spends money with abandon, and becomes obsessed with projects or ideas. When the exuberant moods are still under some control (hypomania), they can be very productive. The afflicted individual seems lively and charismatic, the life of the party. But when mania spirals out of control it can become life threatening. As mentioned above, mania not confined to bipolar disorder. It is a symptom that can happen in mood, thinking and personality disorders.
Bipolar: more down than up
Most patients with true bipolar disorder spend far more time on its depressive side, experiencing few manic phases. In fact, it is now felt that many cases unipolar depression, with no history at all of hypomanic or manic episodes, actually represent bipolar mood disorders, making diagnosis tricky. Correct diagnosis is important. In unipolar depression, the response to conventional antidepressant therapy takes weeks, but in bipolar depression, the same drugs can tip the patient into a manic state quickly. It is possible that the reported cases of suicide shortly after antidepressants are started may be related to this phenomenon.
The danger of wrong diagnosis
In our current medical and economic climate, the threshold for using antidepressants is very low. Frequently the drugs are prescribed by non-psychiatrists, without concurrent talk or behavioral therapy, and without adequate follow-up. So it is imperative for patients who are given antidepressants to understand that a rapid response, within days to a week, and feelings of agitation or irritability might mean that the diagnosis of unipolar depression is wrong. For bipolar patients, the drug of choice is a mood stabilizer, which calms manic states and can prevent return of depression.
Stabilizing the mood
The most effective mood stabilizer is lithium. Lithium is a simple chemical element in the same family of elements as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, rather than a complicated molecule like other psychoactive drugs. Its mechanism of action remains elusive, though it is thought that it makes the neurochemical transmitter norepinephrine less available and less effective in the brain. Lithium must be monitored carefully, with urine levels performed regularly. Toxic side effects include diarrhea, tremors, thirst, weight gain, drowsiness, and impairment of kidney and thyroid function.
If lithium is ineffective or poorly tolerated, drugs normally used for treatment of seizures may work as mood stabilizers. One, valproate, is particularly effective for people who also have substance abuse problems, a not uncommon occurrence. Antidepressants may also be necessary at some point, but not without concurrent use of mood stabilizers. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong problem that requires careful monitoring, variable amounts of drug therapy, and simultaneous counseling aimed at development of cognitive skills and habits that help blunt the effects of mood swings on behavior.
Are we creating more lifelong psychiatric problems with drug treatment?
Some psychiatrists feel that the widespread use of antidepressants and other mood altering drugs to treat poor behavior or reactions to life’s inevitable problems changes brains enough to change the way true psychiatric problems now evolve. These days, we have increasing numbers of bipolar diagnoses. Compared to past decades, bipolar patients now cycle more rapidly between highs and lows. While the increasing frequency of bipolar disorder diagnosis may represent increasing labeling of behavioral problems, we also must consider the disturbing possibility that temporary alteration of brain activity with drugs is leading to long term psychological and behavioral changes. Readers who are interested in more extensive discussion might want to read Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker, Broadway; (August 2, 2011).