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Bipolar disorder is difficult diagnosis
Extreme mood swings associated with bipolar disorder require help from professional

Date published: 7/12/2009

LAST MONTH, a heartbroken family shared the details of their teenage daughter's suicide in a story in The Free Lance-Star. They wanted to open up a dialogue in our community about bipolar disorder. I'd like to add to that dialogue because I think too much is misunderstood about this mental illness, and most importantly, too much is left unsaid.

The truth is that bipolar disorder is more common than many people realize, and there are many families touched by it in some form--whether they've realized it or not.

My first specific awareness that someone in my extended family had long been struggling with bipolar disorder happened in the midst of my first big yard sale. The bizarre way in which those things so trivial can be paired with those things so grave was not lost on me. I had 15 strangers in my front yard, pillaging through a sea of my personal belongings when I got the frantic phone call from a sibling.

"He is just not himself," she said of our family member.

As my neighbors bartered over a lightly used double stroller, I was on the phone listening to a textbook list of symptoms: excessive spending, rapidity of speech, an extremely elevated mood, insomnia without being tired, agitation, some pacing.

It was one of those moments when you suddenly make sense of something that has been right in front of you for a very long time.

Even as I sold my favorite Barbie for a buck-fifty, pieces of a tumultuous past relationship began to fall into place.


In this situation, I was "just a family member." The diagnostic and treatment plan was in the hands of the mental health professionals my family member sought out, and I could not spare our family the hardship of several misdiagnoses and attempts to find the right treatment.

It would take many months before we would manage to get the appropriate diagnosis and medication that would bring our loved one back to himself.

In that time, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about being a family member dealing with bipolar disorder.

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While many people understand and recognize depression, I find that mania is often misunderstood.

Mania--one of the mood extremes people with bipolar disorder experience--can involve seemingly positive elements like an elated mood or increased productivity.

But it can also manifest as extreme anger or agitation, excessive spending, an unusual level of sexual promiscuity or extreme insomnia without feeling tired. And you don't have to experience all of the symptoms to qualify for a mood episode.

Once a person is diagnosed, there still may be, in some cases, symptoms that prevent a person from effectively managing his or her own treatment.

On the manic side, people may experience grandiose thinking: "I know better than all the doctors." Or, they may experience paranoia: "If I tell anyone what I'm thinking, they'll lock me away and throw away the key."

On the depressed side, a person may be too depressed to do anything--even to drag themselves into treatment.

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from bipolar disorder, please seek professional help.

Mental Health America of Fredericksburg (mhafred .org and 540/372-3709) can provide a list of local mental health professionals.

If you are unable to see a psychiatrist as fast as necessary, the hospital emergency room is an option.

To learn more about bipolar disorder in general, try Web sites including:




Dr. Delise Dickard a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in Fredericksburg.