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Fall 2010

Bipolar Disorder: The Big Picture

VS-Fall10-Bipolar DisorderBipolar disorder is among the world’s oldest recognized psychiatric conditions. And while more is known today than in the past about treating bipolar disorder, it is still often mischaracterized and misunderstood.

“Recent diagnostic trends in psychiatry and psychology, as well as reports in the news media, have tended to trivialize this illness,” says David J. Miklowitz, Ph.D., director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. It has been used to explain less serious mood and adjustment problems of children and teens, and to label adults who exhibit milder forms of manic and/or depressed behavior than would be seen in true bipolar disorder. “And the association of bipolar disorder with artistic creativity, while welcome for de-stigmatizing the illness, makes it sound as if anyone with the disorder has Tchaikovsky inside them waiting to come out,” Dr. Miklowitz says.

 The realities are much different. People with bipolar disorder spend close to half their lives in debilitating states of depression that make it hard to work or maintain relationships or parenting roles. And while many people with the disorder do have artistic or literary talents, they are too depressed or too medicated to take full advantage of their talents.

Fortunately, today there are mood-stabilizing medications that, while not easy to take, reduce symptoms, even out the highs and lows, and keep people out of the hospital. There are also specific forms of therapy that address the needs of the bipolar person. The combination of medications and therapy decreases the time it takes for sufferers to recover from their episodes and reduces the risk of recurrence. Even more important, says Dr. Miklowitz, today’s treatments “may increase quality of life, which is usually the most important goal for the person with the disorder and his or her family.”

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