Matenga hinengaro-rua Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression or bipolar affective disorder. When you have bipolar disorder, your mood is sometimes very low (depression), and sometimes very high (elevated). It is a serious illness that affects your day to day life. It can make ordinary living very difficult. But with treatment you can usually manage your life well.

Causes of bipolar disorder

We do not know what causes bipolar disorder. Having other people in your family with bipolar disorder, changes in brain chemistry and stressful life events can all play a part.

Bipolar disorder often starts when you are a teenager, but it may not be diagnosed until much later.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is more than a temporary feeling of being depressed when you are stressed out or of feeling great when something goes really well. With bipolar, these feelings are more extreme and last longer.

When your mood is low (depression), you might:

  • feel hopeless, helpless or worthless
  • have trouble concentrating
  • no longer feel like doing things you used to enjoy
  • not sleep well
  • think about dying.

Elevated mood can range from feeling:

  • really good (hypomania), to
  • intense happiness linked with distress, or problems with social relationships and everyday activities (mania).

With an elevated mood, you might not need to sleep. You could have lots of energy and talk in an urgent, fast way. You might spend too much money and do other things that are risky.

Diagnosing bipolar disorder

It can take a long time for bipolar disorder to be diagnosed. Some people with bipolar disorder take years to experience hypomania or mania for the first time. Sometimes you, people who know you, and even health professionals take a while to realise that your high mood is not normal for you.

It can be even harder to diagnose bipolar disorder in rangatahi (young people). Mood fluctuations (ups and downs) are common and normal during adolescent years. Most rangatahi who have big ups and downs do not have bipolar disorder, and many people's moods settle down as they get older. But it is worth going to see your healthcare provider if you have:

  • big shifts in mood
  • a decreased need for sleep
  • unusual thinking or beliefs
  • seem to be acting out of character.

There are no specific tests for bipolar disorder. It is often diagnosed by talking to you and your whānau, and reviewing your symptoms over time.

Treating bipolar disorder

There are lots of ways to get help for bipolar disorder. These usually involve both self care and getting help from others. Medication normally plays a part too.

Sometimes a person with bipolar disorder gets too sick to look after themselves. If there is a risk of hurting yourselves or others, you may need to go to a hospital.

In a crisis

Self care with bipolar disorder

There are many things you can do to help yourself if you have bipolar disorder.

Talk to people

Talk to trusted friends and whānau about your bipolar disorder. This can help them understand and be there for you when you need them.

Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms and how you are feeling.

Look after your physical health

Try to stay active to improve both your mental and physical wellbeing.

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity most days.
  • Eat well and avoid too much caffeine from coffee and energy drinks.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to safe levels.
  • Quit smoking, if you smoke.
  • Stick to regular daily routines.
  • Get enough sleep — lack of sleep can be a trigger for bipolar disorder.
  • Do not do recreational drugs as they can cause mood changes.

Getting help with bipolar disorder

Many people with bipolar disorder need help with managing their condition, as well as education on ways to help themselves.

Talking to your healthcare provider is a good place to start. They can discuss treatment options with you and refer you to specialist services if needed.

Where to get help for mental health

Medications

Medications can be used to help with the depressive or manic symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Mood-stabilising medications such as lithium are used longer term to prevent mood swings.

Talking therapy (psychological treatments)

Talking therapies help you cope with your condition and manage symptoms of bipolar disorder such as depression.

You can find information about accessing mental health support on the Mental Health Foundation website. 

Accessing mental health services — Mental Health Foundation (external link)

Videos about bipolar disorder

Attitude – Living with bipolar disorder

Samoan pastor Imoa Setefano shares his experience of having bipolar disorder.

Attitude — YouTube (external link)

Royal College of Psychiatrists – Bipolar disorder

A video by UK specialists that explains what bipolar disorder is like and how to manage it.

Bipolar disorder — YouTube (external link)

Related websites

Mental Health Foundation

What bipolar disorders is, including causes, symptoms and treatment.

Clinical review

This content was written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. It has been adapted for Health Information and Services.

Clinical advisers — HealthInfo (external link)

Last updated: