On World Bipolar Disorder Day, spotlighting a frequently misunderstood illness.

“A roller coaster mood experience.” With these words, Emmanuelle*, 28, describes her psychiatric illness. The young, passionate painter and dancer was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “It is a complex mental condition marked by extreme mood swings,” explains Sami Richa, psychiatrist and corresponding member of the National Academy of Medicine of France, to This is Beirut, on the occasion of World Bipolar Disorder Day, fixed on March 30. “These fluctuations can manifest as periods of depression or mania, with often grave episodes disturbing the daily lives of those affected and their loved ones,” he adds.

“Some days, I can dance, draw and feel confident, Emmanuelle explains. However, the next day, I find myself unable to get out of bed. I am overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts and tormented by insomnia.”

A diversity of clinical forms

Bipolar disorder manifests in a diverse range of clinical forms. “Each individual may face a specific manifestation of the illness, explains Dr. Richa. Some may primarily experience periods of depression, which might be accompanied by episodes of hypomania, (Hypomania is defined by Collins as an abnormal condition of extreme excitement, characterized by great optimism and overactivity, and often by reckless spending of money, ‘EDITOR’S NOTE). Others may undergo episodes of mania characterized by excessive euphoria and impulsive behavior. These episodes can last for days or even weeks, with the intensity varying from one individual to another.”

Several signs may indicate the presence of bipolar disorder. “This primarily includes a family history of the illness,” indicates Dr. Richa. People with relatives who have bipolar disorder should be particularly attentive to symptoms, especially depressive episodes that do not improve with antidepressants or an agitated reaction to these medications.”

The symptoms of mania, such as insomnia, excessive spending, and grandiose ideas, are often more easily noticed by those around the individual. Emmanuelle’s case exemplifies this—she often spends money recklessly, which led her parents to withhold her access to a credit card. “I would make compulsive purchases that I later regretted,” she admits.

“It is however vital not to mistake bipolar episodes for other mood disorders to prevent overdiagnosis,” warns Dr. Richa.

Causes and treatments

The causes of bipolar disorder are multifaceted, encompassing genetic, biological and environmental factors. “Neurochemical imbalances in the brain play a crucial role in its development,” indicates Dr. Richa.

Regarding treatment, he explains that it “often involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy.” “The objective of treating this chronic illness is to stabilize symptoms, enabling patients to lead functional lives,” affirms Dr. Richa, underscoring the importance of avoiding treatment discontinuation, which “leads to severe relapses and potentially devastating long-term consequences.” “These side effects stem from discontinuing medication,” he points out.

Emmanuelle affirms that she experienced all the side effects of the prescribed medications, including digestive issues, impatience and weight gain. “This has led my doctor to change medications several times, she recalls. It took several months of adjustments to find the right medication. This phase will forever be etched in my memory.”

Early detection and awareness

Early detection of bipolar disorder is crucial for effective management. Alongside medication, psychotherapy and disease education are necessary to help patients manage their condition and prevent relapses.

At the societal level, raising awareness about bipolar disorder is crucial to combat the stigma associated with the illness. “Bipolar disorder is a disabling and chronic condition, with symptoms that can vary significantly, notes Dr. Richa. It is essential to understand this in order to promote inclusion and support for individuals affected by this disorder.”

Emmanuelle asserts that she has become accustomed to her illness. “Today, I view bipolar disorder as a challenge that I can continually overcome with the support of my therapist and psychologist. Eventually, we learn to tame it,” she concludes.

*The name has been altered as per the witness’s request.