Bipolar Disorder – May Prove to Have Advantages if Harnessed

Born March 30, 1853, Vincent Van Gogh, became a well-known artist during the impressionistic period of art. After suffering multiple mental problems, in 1888 Van Gogh commited himself into the Saint Remy Asylum. It was during this period that he completed one of his most famous creations, “Starry Night[1].” Anna Marie Duke was born to a household filled with turmoil. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was an undiagnosed manic depressant. It was not until she was 8 years old that she was discovered by John and Ethel Ross, talent scouts were looking for young actresses. Pulling Anna from her troubled home, they whisked her away to stardom. After unofficially adopting her, the Ross’ changed her name to Patty, telling the young girl that Anna Marie was dead. “You’re Patty now.” By age 16 Patty became the first child recipient of an Oscar Award for her role in Helen Keller. After several years of a successful acting career the signs of depression began to exhibit themselves and in 1982 Patty Duke was formally diagnosed as “manic depressive” and tells of her account in her autobiography, “Call me Anna[2].” What do these two very famous people from completely different eras have in common? They both were bipolar. Vincent Van Gogh’s life ended in tragedy while Patty Duke to received lithium as treatment for her condition.

Bipolar disorder or manic depression can best be described as a serious mental illness that can affect a person’s ability to feel a normal range of emotions or moods. People that are diagnosed with bipolar disorder find themselves with moods that range from very high (manic) to very low (depression). Originally, the term manic depression was used to describe this mental illness but now bipolar disorder is used as it better described the extreme polarity of highs and lows that the patient experiences.

Symptoms that a patient with bipolar disorder may exhibit cover a wide range as one might imagine with an illness that spans such extremes. A patient during bouts with mania will exhibit behavior such as increased energy levels, less need for sleep, racing thoughts, are easily distracted, more talkative, stronger sense of self confidence, focused on getting things done but with little results, and indulgence in risky or unusual activities to an extreme. On the opposite “pole” these same patients, during a depression state, will exhibit such behavior as feeling sad or blue, loss of interest in things the person used to enjoy, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness, variation in sleep patterns (too little or not enough), fluctuation in weight or appetite, feeling tired or lack of energy, and thoughts of suicide or preoccupation with thoughts of death. As researchers become more familiar with bipolar disorder they have come to the conclusion this illness is typically lifelong but with a variety of medicines and therapies the patients can go on to live relatively normal lives.

Vincent Van Gogh and Patty Duke are famous individuals but everyday common ordinary people battle bipolar disorder in a variety of ways. Patients, even after they are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, are able to hold jobs, raise families and go on to live productive lives. Medicines like mood stabilizers are effective in treating the “highs and lows” of the disorder. In addition, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics are often used in conjunction with mood stabilizers to stave off or help control the bouts of depression and mania. Another medical treatment that is not considered a drug is Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT. This treatment has been found effective for patients that do not respond well to drug therapy.

Some goals of a professional that is treating a patient with bipolar disorder might include some of the following: control of acute manic and depressive symptoms, reduction in the amount and frequency of mood cycling and mood instability occur, to aid patients in the achievement of functioning at their highest level possible, minimization of side effects of treatments and to aid in the implementation of a rigid treatment management plan.

The professional that treats a patient that is bipolar will inevitably encounter the patients that feel as though they are “cured” and will not require the use of medication or therapy to live out a normal life. This in fact can be quite disastrous. Patients that begin to feel bipolar disorder is in “check” will stop taking their prescribed medication or therapy and at the behest of their treating professional, will experience further instability with regard to their management of the disorder. Some common excuses given by patients include:

  • I don’t want to take medication for the rest of my life
  • I feel better, there’s nothing wrong with me
  • I’m experiencing the side effects of the drugs; I sleepy all the time, I’m gaining weight, etc.
  • I disagree with my treatment

Patients taking medication for bipolar disorder must be frequently reminded and encouraged that this disorder is not to be considered a character flaw or weakness and treatment must be continuous or relapses or worsening effects of the illness will occur. Like a patient that has high blood pressure or cholesterol, a patient with bipolar disorder must continue their drug therapy, as prescribed, or bouts of the disorder will increase in frequency and intensity.

Alternatives to drug therapy may include talk therapy or psychotherapy. This therapy has been found to be quite effective in aiding the patient in isolating triggers of bipolar disorder. During talk therapy, the patient would discuss with a mental health professional their unique circumstances and relationships. This therapy aids the patient in assessing and evaluating their condition. With bipolar disorder, the patient can experience a wide array of feelings and emotions. A mental health professional can aid in helping the patient understand the source of these feelings and offer adjustment techniques to the gamut of emotions they are experiencing. It must be understood that talk therapy is not about getting advice or answers. Talk therapy should revolve around assisting the patient in understanding themselves, getting support and feedback in a open, honest and private setting. Different types of talk therapy are available and will depend on the severity of the bipolar patient as to which therapy is best suited to their needs. One-on-one therapy and group therapy are both effective but must be administered correctly and safely. Some therapies center on information and support while others encourage the patient to learn about themselves and their relationships. Overall, therapy of any sort should aid the patient in establishing confidence and to reduce the strain bipolar disorder places on an individual and their relationships.

According to the National Mental Health Information Center, 1 in every 100 people develops bipolar disorder[3]. No one has the same symptoms of this disorder nor will they experience it to the same degree. While the jury is still out on the exact cause of bipolar disorder, scientists now believe that it can be traced to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. If a patient has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder they should not be disheartened. There are numerous examples of people that go on to live out normal and productive lives. Some things a patient can do to increase the effectiveness of their therapy (drug, psycho therapy or ECT) is to take a vested interest in your disorder. Research is vital in the education and understanding of this disorder. Every day new hallmarks are being made in the treatment of bipolar disorder. It would behoove the patient to track their moods and emotions on a chart, to avoid triggers of mood episodes, and keep a list of questions for your mental health care provider. Staying informed and maintaining a discipline of taking your medication are 2 of most important things a patient can do to achieve a sense of normalcy in coping with bipolar disorder.

In conclusion, bipolar disorder does not mean a death sentence on your ability to live a mentally, socially and physically normal life. Some patients have even learned to harness their illness to achieve great success in life. It is believed by some that Van Gogh’s ability to paint was heightened by his emotional energy while coping with bipolar disorder. Patty Duke’s ability to act was attributed by some, to her ability to exhibit such extreme emotions. Sadly, this is still a disease and must be treated as such.

NOTE: The information contained in this article is not intended to in anyway advise or instruct the reader. It contains opinions and research as gathered by the author. Please consult your healthcare professional for expert medical and psychological opinions.

Bipolar Disorder – References and Sources

  • As noted in footnotes
  • Bipolar.com

[1] Reference: www.vangoghgallery.com

[2] Reference: www.bipolar/about.com/cs/celebs/a/pattyduke.htm

[3] www.mentalheatlh.samhsa.gov

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