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Kevlar for the Mind: Bipolar disorder is serious - and sometimes lethal

Sep. 3, 2014 - 04:45PM   |  
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The recent suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams has brought acute awareness to the effects of bipolar disorder, a chronic and persistent mental illness that wreaks emotional, physical and social havoc on millions of people each year. About 4 percent of people will experience the disorder during their lifetime, making it more common than better known disorders like schizophrenia, agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Service members are not immune to bipolar disorder. Exact rates in active-duty troops are not known, as most are medically retired once the diagnosis is made. However, there are comparable rates between veterans and the general public. Even more concerning: Research shows that veterans suffering from bipolar disorder are more likely to die by suicide than those diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to being a relatively common illness, bipolar disorder is complex and often difficult to diagnose.

There are two primary subdivisions of the disorder: Bipolar I and Bipolar II, both characterized by periods of high and low moods.

In Bipolar I disorder, individuals experience periods of increased energy, inflated self-esteem, rapid speech, racing thoughts, and impaired judgment, all of which interfere with the ability to function normally at work or in social settings. These periods, referred to as manic phases, usually alternate with episodes of severe and disabling depression.

Bipolar II is similar in that there are alternating periods of highs and lows, but the highs tend to be less severe and do not last as long as in Bipolar I. Referred to as hypomanic phases, individuals experience a reduced need for sleep, increased irritability and hyperactivity. Judgment is usually not impaired and many individuals show no major problems at work or home.

The primary treatment is medication. Unfortunately, compliance is poor, and medication side effects can be severe. And when a person is experiencing a manic or hypomanic episode, the last thing he or she wants to do is to interrupt the euphoric feelings that often accompany the emotional high.

Bipolar disorder is a serious condition that warrants immediate and prolonged attention. Between 25 percent and 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide, and 10 percent to 20 percent will succeed. This makes bipolar disorder one of the most lethal disorders in psychiatry. If you believe you or someone you love is dealing with the illness, talk with your health care provider. You can find more information about bipolar disorder at

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and author of the newly published “Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear.” Email Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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