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What is bipolar disorder?

By Susan Boyer

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme changes in mood, thinking, and behavior. During a "manic phase," people with bipolar disorder experience feelings of euphoria, happiness, and hyperactivity. Some even experience delusions of grandeur. During a "depressed phase," feelings of sadness and depression are the norm. Some patients experience suicidal thoughts. People with bipolar disorder experience these severe mood swings many times during their lives. Some will experience several mood swings during a single year, while others will experience only one or two episodes in a lifetime.

Depression and mania are considered to be the polar opposites of human emotion. The term "bipolar" describes the swings between these two emotional "poles." Other names given the disorder include bipolar depression, bipolar affective disorder, bipolar personality disorder, bipolar mood disorder, manic depression, and manic depressive illness.

Bipolar disorder in children is similar to bipolar disorder in adults. However, children experience mood swings of greater severity than adults with the disorder.

At any given time, slightly more than one percent of the U.S. population has bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder may start with either a depressive or a manic episode. Most patients experience the onset of symptoms in their teens or early twenties. Some patients may have their first episode at 10 years of age or younger. Most patients experience their first episode before the age of 50. Onsets as late as the 70s or 80s are very rare. Men and women are diagnosed with the disease in nearly equal numbers.

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