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West London NHS Trust > Patients and carers > Mental and physical health conditions > Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects a person’s moods so that they swing from one emotional extreme to another. A person with bipolar disorder will have episodes of depression when they feel very low, and episodes of mania when they feel very high. It used to be called manic depression.
Unlike the mood swings most of us experience, a person with bipolar disorder will have episodes of extreme depression or mania lasting for several weeks or longer. These can affect everyday life, work and relationships.
Most people with bi-polar disorder can, with the right balance of medication and other therapies, live full and healthy lives. They learn to recognise both the triggers and the early onset symptoms and take the steps needed to prevent a mood swing from disrupting their lives. Many highly successful individuals – like Stephen Fry – manage their bi-polar disorder and live to the full.

Types of bipolar disorder

There are two main types of bipolar disorder:

  • Bipolar I: manic episodes lasting for more than a week. A person with bipolar disorder may have a period of depression after a manic episode, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
  • Bipolar II: depressive episodes lasting for more than a week. These tend to be followed by a period of mania (less severe than those for a person with Bipolar I) during which ‘normal’ life can still be manageable.

There are two other less common types of bipolar disorder:

  • Rapid cycling: more than four episodes of extreme depression or mania a year. This affects around one in ten people with the condition.
  • Cyclothymia: less severe episodes but lasting longer.

How common is bipolar disorder?

It affects around one in 100 people. For both men and women it usually develops between the ages of 18 and 24.

Why is it important to get treatment?

Bipolar disorder is a long-term mental illness and will get worse if not treated. An untreated person will have more frequent and more severe episodes as time goes on. Treatment can reduce the frequency and severity of episodes, helping a person lead a full life.
The care team at WLMHT will help people with this condition develop the skills they need to manage their bipolar disorder and not become isolated during episodes of mania or depression. Making sure a person understands their own strengths and resources is an important element of our work at WLMHT.

Living with bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder usually lasts a lifetime with repeated episodes of mania and depression. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder will have long periods without symptoms.
With support, a person with bipolar disorder can lead a satisfying and stable life. The WLMHT care team helps people recover and maintain stability so that they can engage in meaningful activity and develop relationships, regardless of whether they experience repeated episodes.

Care at WLMHT

The WLMHT care team works in partnership with a person and, if appropriate, their carers. Together, they discuss the course of their condition and get a complete history of symptoms and experiences before suggesting treatment options.
The focus at WLMHT is on helping a person develop the skills they need to have active control over their lives and take responsibility for managing their symptoms.
We consider the needs of the whole person, not just the symptoms, and aim to develop a person’s coping skills so they can maintain independence and better manage their symptoms. This includes taking into account each person’s diverse needs, personal treatment preferences and lifestyle factors.

Research at WLMHT

WLMHT is one of the most research-active mental health trusts in the UK. Research into bi-polar, its symptoms, causes and treatments is one of the priority areas for researchers at WLMHT. Patients and carers receiving treatment through our clinical service often benefit from participating in research. Patients and carers are encouraged to ask their doctor or nurse what research studies may be suitable for them.