Bipolar disorder: What are the symptoms and how is it treated?

Sabrina Barr, Sophie Gallagher
·4-min read
Getty Images
Getty Images

Kim Kardashian West has issued a statement regarding her husband, Kanye West, and his mental health.

In recent days West, who says he is running for US president, appeared distressed at a campaign rally – where he broke down in tears – and tweeted messages about his wife being a “white supremacist” before later deleting it.

Kardashian West shared a post on Instagram on Wednesday, saying: “As many of you know, Kanye has bipolar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.”

She explained that she never previously spoke publicly about the issue because she wanted to protect her husband’s privacy, and her children – they have four children together.

“Living with bipolar does not diminish or invalidate his dreams or creative ideas,” she added, and asked for compassion and empathy from fans.

In 2019 West opened up about his bipolar disorder in a new David Letterman interview, saying that it can make him feel ”hyper-paranoid”.

The rapper said that while the mental health condition can make him feel better able to express his personality, it can also lead to him feeling as though everything is a “conspiracy”.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar, previously called “manic depression”, is a serious mental health condition where people experience significant swings in mood, with episodes of hyperactivity and depression.

It is thought between one to two per cent of adults have bipolar disorder, although NHS figures show more younger people, aged 16 to 34, are diagnosed with the condition.

Other public figures, such as Stephen Fry have talked about the challenges they have faced living with the condition, which can be hard for loved ones to understand and can lead to suicidal thoughts, but can be controlled through medication and support.

What causes bipolar?

Bipolar is thought to be the result of problems regulating chemical signalling molecules in the brain, neurotransmitters, such as erotonin and dopamine.

There is some evidence to suggest that the neurotransmitter noradrenaline can cause “highs” when its levels are elevated and “lows” when it drops.

As with many mental health conditions. its causes are unclear. Charity Bipolar UK says there is likely to be an inherited predisposition to the condition though no single genetic link has been found.

Stressful life events such as exams, illness and work or relationship pressures are thought to be triggers for bipolar, but mood swings can occur randomly.

What are the symptoms?

People with bipolar experience “highs” and “lows”, although the high is better described as mania.

Mania is characterised by increased energy, and might see someone noticeably talking faster or being more easily distracted. In serious cases this can lead to unrealistic confidence, making people aggressive or prone to uncharacteristic behaviour – like going on a spending spree.

In a depressive episode people with bipolar will feel low on energy, sad and anxious, and this can affect their feelings of self-worth, cause loss of appetite and lead to suicide attempts.

There are different categories, such as Bipolar I, where you have one or more manic episode which can last months on end; Bipolar II where you have multiple depressive episodes but only mild manic episodes.

Rapid Cycling bipolar affects around one in 10 people with the disorder who have more than four mood swings in a year.

How is bipolar treated?

There is no cure for bipolar, though medications and psychological support can help. But charities warn that the nature of the condition and a lack of specialist NHS services mean the average time to a correct diagnosis is 10.5 years.

Medications known as mood stabilisers can be taken on a long-term basis and this can control or lessen the swings from high to low, while others can treat severe episodes.

Psychological treatment such as talking therapies can help manage depression; however there are currently long waits to access supports in many parts of the country.

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