Bipolar disorder, which until the 1980s was called manic-depression, is a diagnostic term used to describe patterns of abnormal and severe mood swings, ranging from disabling depression to mania. For the sake of clarity, we’re using the term “mood” to describe a sustained or prevailing emotional state. The term “bipolar” refers to extreme moods, from depressed on one pole to manic on the other.
There are four variants of bipolar disorder included in the current psychiatric diagnostic manual (the DSM-IV-TR), a book medical professionals use to diagnose patients.
• Bipolar I disorder
• Bipolar II disorder
• Cyclothymic disorder
• Bipolar disorder NOS (not otherwise specified)
In the real world, what we find is that while these diagnoses are useful and provide a common language with which behavioral health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, therapists, and others) can communicate, the reality is that bipolar disorder represents a complex spectrum. Each person with bipolar disorder will have an array of symptoms unique to them and to their changing lives, circumstances, and moods. The range is vast, from people who will have multiple mood swings in a year to some who may go for years or even decades with the disorder lying dormant.
There is no one face to bipolar disorder, and because we’re discussing moods, something everyone has, we’ll need to define where normal ends and a disordered state begins.