Bipolar disorder may be a part of a person’s life for a long time. For some people, the consequences of this disorder can be both disruptive and damaging. But many people have managed to carry on and live well with it. This is a recurring disorder which affects a person’s mood. There may be extreme mood changes for no obvious reason, with episodes of uncontrollable energy (mania, hypomania or “high”) and episodes of depression (“low”), and/or mixed mood, and periods of stable mood.

Everyone has changes of mood, sometimes as a reaction to an event, but with bipolar disorder the changes of mood may come “out of the blue” and can be much more extreme. The symptoms may be mild, moderate or severe; episodes may be frequent or few. Individual experiences will vary. Mania and depression can reach a level where a person loses touch with reality.

During the manic phase a person may feel ‘on top of the world, be over-confident, restless and over-active and plan too many activities for a given time period. They may sleep less, without feeling tired, be easily irritated, have racing thoughts and talk on at a fast pace. In this manic phase the person may lack good judgement which may lead to things like reckless driving, sexual indiscretions and spending sprees. They may give unusual attention to previously unimportant or irrelevant thing, have false beliefs of self-importance, power or knowledge or believe they are controlled by someone or something.

During the depressed stage a person may feel worthless, helpless, hopeless, and guilty or lose all interest in people and enjoyable activities. They may lose or gain weight, feel tired all the time, sleep more than usual or have trouble sleeping, have trouble concentrating, experience aches and pains that have no physical cause. A depressed person may think a lot about death, or attempt suicide, have false beliefs of being inadequate of being controlled by someone or something.

The cause of Bipolar Disorder is not yet fully understood. It seems to be a chemical or bio-chemical change in the brain and may have something to do with the neurotransmitters which carry messages to the brain. It could be a combination of factors however it often runs in families and therefore may be genetic but sometimes there is no family history of it. It isn’t anyone’s ‘fault!’

There are well accepted approaches to the treatment of bipolar disorder and they usually include some element of medication for the symptoms. There are also other and complementary approaches that are known to be effective.

In relationships there may be tension, frustration and confusion within the family. Members of the family may want to express their concerns but mixed-up feelings can make this difficult. Sometimes a person who is “high” can be hurtful to others. Families may be alarmed and worried. Friends may be put off. It can be a time of great stress.

You are not alone. It is thought 1-4% of the population (more than 40,000 New Zealanders) have bipolar disorder. The lives of some well-known people have been affected by mood disorders. Among them are Spike Milligan, Patty Duke, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Schumann, Kurt Cobain, Brittany Spears, Stephen Fry and many others.

For help we suggest you talk with one of our peer support workers who has their own lived experience of bipolar disorder and who now live well in the presence or absence of its symptoms.

A variety of booklets including ‘Living Well with Bipolar Disorder’ and ‘Someone You Care About Has a Mood Disorder’ are available at MHAPS.


The Mental Health Education and Research Centre (MHERC) Library has books and DVDs on bipolar disorder