Bipolar disorder is characterized by extremes in mood and related changes in behavior and thoughts. In this condition, an individual experiences both highs (mania or its milder form, hypomania), and lows (depression), or a mixture of symptoms at the same time. What is tricky about manic symptoms is that, unlike depression, they may not be recognized by individuals with the condition, and in fact the symptoms may be enjoyable to them. The symptoms of bipolar disorder come and go, but the condition itself is chronic and requires ongoing management, like diabetes does. However, with good treatment and self-management skills, individuals with bipolar disorder can lead productive and fulfilling lives.
Previously called manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is relatively common – about one in every hundred people (1%) develop bipolar disorder.
There are no laboratory tests, no brain scans, and no paper-and-pencil tests that tell you if you have bipolar disorder. Sometimes, though, brain scans are used to make sure that physical problems like a tumor are not causing the symptoms. Genetic testing available on the web cannot tell you, either; these tests tend to be a waste of money. Rather, the diagnosis is made by an experienced clinical provider from taking a careful history and interview observations. And it is not just a matter of opinion.
Making the correct clinical diagnosis is important, and good treatment leads to better outcomes. However, making a diagnosis does not mean that you become your diagnosis. It is important to explore what the condition means to your life—neither ignoring the condition nor surrendering your life and self-worth to it.
Treatment for bipolar disorder involves working with mental health professionals to develop a plan with both medication and psychosocial interventions to achieve optimal health. Bipolar is a spectrum disorder because each person’s symptoms, life circumstances, and other health and mental health issues create a uniqueness that makes it impossible to treat everyone in the same way.
Medication is necessary in most cases. A medication that works well for one Veteran may not help another, so it is important to work closely with prescribers to find a medication that works. No one treatment is best for all Veterans. Programs and services at the VA treat each Veteran as an individual and work to determine which treatments and programs fit best with each Veterans’ personal needs and goals.
Psychological Treatments and Social Supports
Veterans can also talk with Mental Health Professionals (MHPs) about trauma they’ve experienced, substance use, challenging life circumstances, or other pain that may be affecting them. Psychosocial interventions are considered essential to promoting the recovery of Veterans who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and should be offered along with medications. Psychosocial interventions have been shown to improve outcomes in individuals already taking medication.
The VA provides the following psychosocial interventions for bipolar disorder: