Years ago, I had an acquaintance who, for the purposes of this article, I’ll call Rob. He was a bright guy, a hard-working engineer with a sharp mind and a thirst for adventure. When he got interested in a topic or excited about a recreational pursuit, he went after it with a no-holds-barred intensity.
One summer, Rob took up whitewater rafting. From his suburban Atlanta home, he would explore the rivers of north Georgia every weekend, and sometimes even on weekdays after work. He was so passionate about it that he convinced me and a mutual friend to accompany him on a weekend trip along the Chattanooga River, a world-renowned whitewater destination.
The prudent approach would have been to hire a guide to help us navigate the Class IV and V rapids, but Rob was certain we could do this on our own. And if spending a day on the harrowing rapids wasn’t enough, he planned the trip so that when we reached the river’s takeout point, we had to strap on our backpacks and hike the 10 miles back to our starting point.
After surviving that adrenaline-fueled outing, I learned that Rob suffered from bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression), and that the adventure marked one of his “high” or manic periods. Sadly, Rob also suffered intense periods of depression. He suffered these periods of depression so often that a few years later, he took his own life.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines bipolar disorder as “a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”
According to the NIMH, those mood shifts can vary from moments of extreme emotions, which can include ecstatic to irritable behavior, to extreme moments of hopelessness.
Dr. Mfon Inyang, a psychiatrist with Phoebe Behavioral Health in Albany, says approximately 10 to 15 percent of patients with bipolar disorder will ultimately commit suicide. But such an extreme measure can be prevented if the condition is recognized and treated.
“The first big concern is safety,” Inyang said. “People who are in active manic crisis, at the peak of it, are oblivious to the risk they are taking. The euphoric nature of the illness and the high level of energy they are exhibiting at the time are things that could put them in danger. So, if one is evaluating a patient who has this intensity of symptoms, it might be necessary for them to go to a hospital for a short time, until the intensity calms down.”
When a bipolar patient is not in a crisis situation, the condition is treated with medication or therapy, and often a combination of both. Medications include mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, and antidepressants. A common therapy technique is cognitive behavioral therapy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors include having a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with bipolar disorder; periods of high stress, such as the death of a loved one or other traumatic event; and drug or alcohol abuse.
Whatever the cause, Dr. Inyang says it’s important for sufferers to understand that bipolar disorder is an illness rather than a character flaw or weakness, and that seeking help is imperative.
“They shouldn’t keep it to themselves,” Inyang says. “They need to talk to someone. It could be a family member, a counselor, a psychiatrist, or even a social worker. It’s always better to take the first step. They need to understand that delaying it may put them more at risk, because the longer they wait, the more they are unable to make decisions that are logical. At some point, they may feel like they are invincible, so why even bother to get help?”
Bipolar Disorder – Helpful Resources
American Psychiatric Association (www.pschiatry.org): The APA’s bipolar disorder page includes an “Expert Q&A” section and first-hand stories from patients.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (www.dbsalliance.org): Provides education, wellness advice, and connections to DBSA chapters and support groups around the country.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org): NAMI’s bipolar page includes sections for treatment and support options, plus discussion groups for interacting with others affected by the condition.
eMoods Bipolar Mood Tracker (www.emoodtracker.com): This app, available in mobile formats for Apple and Android devices, helps patients track bipolar symptom data, identify triggers and patterns to help prevent relapses, and enhance doctor’s visits with detailed data exports.
Written by Allen Allnoch
Dr. Mfon Inyang
Psychiatrist at Phoebe Behavioral Health