When Carrie Fisher passed away in late 2016, former colleagues and the media extolled her prolific career as an actor and writer. They also praised her efforts to champion those suffering from mental illness. Fisher had bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that causes drastic shifts in mood, energy and activity levels.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 2.6 percent of American adults have bipolar disorder. That equates to more than 5 million men and women. Signs commonly appear during a person’s late teen or early adult years, but children can also have the disorder, which usually lasts a lifetime. The symptoms of the manic and depressed episodes common with bipolar disorder can be so severe that if left untreated, they can negatively affect quality of life, relationships, education and career.
Dr. Larkin Hoyt, director of outpatient services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, answers five questions about bipolar disorder — and what you can do if you are concerned about a loved one.
1. Carrie Fisher talked often about her diagnosis, which is rare for someone so high-profile. Why is there such a stigma surrounding bipolar disorder?
Often it is because people wrongly attribute mental illness to character and moral failures that are within a person’s control. Bipolar disorder is a brain disease and the symptoms that are present in a manic or depressed episode greatly influence behavior and personality. Medication, therapy and positive coping skills can be very effective at treating this disorder, but often the stigma prevents people from getting the help they need.
2. What are the most common misconceptions about bipolar disorder?
Common misperceptions are that people with bipolar disorder can never be stable and that their judgment can never be trusted. Even television shows sensationalize disorders for entertainment value. Although some behaviors — such as agitation, fast-talking and risky or reckless actions — are witnessed in individuals struggling with bipolar disorder, not all patients experience these symptoms. Behaviors are influenced by many factors, including family, work, friendships, environment and financial. When these factors remain relatively stable, behaviors can be mitigated.
3. What are some of the signs of bipolar disorder that loved ones might want to look for?
If a loved one is experiencing a possible manic episode, you may observe the following:
- More talkative than usual
- Reports that thoughts are racing
- Easily distracted
- Inflated sense of self
- Risky behaviors, often related to spending money or sexual activity
If your loved one is experiencing a depressed episode, you may witness the following signs:
- Depressed mood almost every day
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Little to no sleep or always sleeping
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reports of suicidal thoughts
4. What is the prognosis for someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
Prognosis has improved over the last 25 years. Scientists have developed effective medications to help monitor and treat the episodes with fewer side effects. Doctors are also able to better recognize the symptoms and thus treat the disease, and treat it sooner. Many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder live full lives. Education, strong relationships with treatment providers, and family communication are all key ingredients to managing the disorder and living life to the fullest.
5. How can family members and friends help a loved one with bipolar disorder?
If you recognize the symptoms of bipolar disorder in a loved one, speak to your health care provider about your concerns. You can also contact your local mental health clinic, such as Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, to determine whether your loved one may be a suitable candidate for a mental health assessment. Finally, educate yourself through resources provided by organizations like the NIMH or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).