Why Is Bipolar Disorder Such a Challenging Co-Occurring Mental Illness?

Why Is Bipolar Disorder Such a Challenging Co-Occurring Mental Illness?

In the United States, around one to two percent of the population have bipolar disorder. This mental illness is characterized by unusual changes in a person’s mood, energy, and behaviors. People with bipolar disorder may seem elated and energized at some points, then feel depressed and hopeless at other times. These opposing moods come in rounds lasting days or weeks, making it difficult to carry out daily functions.

Many people with bipolar disorder develop substance addiction. Research indicates that around 40% of people with bipolar disorder develop lifelong alcohol or cannabis dependence. The high comorbidity of these two conditions may lead to severe health outcomes, including overdose and suicide.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

People with bipolar disorder, formerly called “manic depression,” have cyclical and extreme mood symptoms that occur in some pattern. Most cases require lifelong treatment. People with bipolar disorder may not be able to control or recognize their potentially harmful behaviors. Consequently, they are often stigmatized and treated harshly by society.

Clinically speaking, bipolar disorder occurs in rounds of two different episodes. A manic episode happens when a person feels elated, energized, or agitated. They may have racing thoughts and a lot of energy to carry out tasks. This sometimes makes it hard to sleep or listen to the body’s natural need for rest. A person can feel very important and powerful and may make rash decisions. Though the energy and productivity during manic episodes can seem good on the surface, they can become so severe that the individual needs hospitalization.

On the other end of the spectrum come depressive episodes. This same person who was once energetic starts to feel anxious and sad, lose interest in activities, and perpetuate negative self-talk. Depressive episodes can come with low energy, poor eating, sleeping, and hygiene habits, and thoughts of suicide.

Even when the cyclical occurrence of these two episodes is not severe, the changes in their mood and energy are obvious and can be confusing to loved ones. If untreated, milder symptoms may lead to more severe symptoms that interrupt life and relationships.

How Is Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed?

Diagnosis always begins with a comprehensive medical exam of an individual’s physical and psychological condition. A health professional may use a set of standardized mental health evaluation tools that assess the presence of key symptoms of bipolar disorder. They also collect data about family history and other aspects of a person’s life to make an accurate diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder often starts appearing in adolescence. It is recommended that medical diagnosis be conducted as soon as one notices signs. Delaying diagnosis and treatment may worsen the condition. In addition, many people with bipolar disorder also have other mental health issues, such as anxiety, substance use disorder (SUD), ADHD, or eating disorders. An early diagnosis can lead to better treatment which helps individuals heal from complex symptoms and interactions between disorders.

How Can Bipolar Disorder Be Treated?

As bipolar disorder is complex, treatment requires special licensing and individualization. Generally speaking, medications and psychotherapy are the best courses of treatment. A licensed mental health professional may prescribe mood stabilizers in combination with atypical antipsychotics. Although there are still no FDA-approved antidepressants specifically for bipolar disorder, general antidepressants are known to be effective.

In terms of psychotherapy, traditional methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are effective in treating bipolar disorder. Family therapy can help a person develop coping skills at home and teach the entire family to improve communication to support a loved one’s recovery.

Why Do Bipolar Disorder and SUD Tend to Co-Occur?

Research shows that SUD is more likely to co-occur with bipolar disorder than any other mental health illness. This is mainly because these two conditions have shared underlying causal factors, particularly genetics. Having both poses challenges for diagnosis and treatment. However, both are possible.

Mental health experts often need to conduct more specific assessments when both bipolar disorder and SUD are suspected. It is a multidisciplinary effort to diagnose co-occurring conditions and their impacts on each other. For example, untreated bipolar disorder may cause substance use, and substance use can worsen bipolar symptoms.

How to Treat Both Conditions Together

Because both conditions are progressive illnesses, early intervention is crucial. The earlier people seek treatment, the better. A dual diagnosis treatment plan will integrate the expertise of addiction recovery specialists with that of mental health professionals.

Health professionals often combine medication with psychotherapy and group therapy. Many medications that treat bipolar disorder can effectively decrease cravings for substance use. Therapies such as CBT, family therapy, and 12-Step groups can help ease symptoms for those with bipolar disorder along with SUD.

How to Find the Right Treatment

An individualized treatment plan centers around a person’s unique needs and history. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to these complex conditions. It may take a long time before an integrated team of experts finds the proper medication, dosages, and therapies to treat both conditions effectively and simultaneously.

Many families think that their loved one’s bipolar disorder needs to be treated before experts address the addiction problem. The truth is dual diagnosis requires treating both conditions together to truly break the cycle. Family and friends of a person with a complex dual diagnosis should trust and work closely with health professionals.

Achieving sobriety for people with dual conditions of bipolar disorder and SUD can be challenging. Family and friends must trust and rely on the support of health professionals who use an integrated approach to treat both conditions. Laguna Shores Recovery offers a strong dual diagnosis treatment program and an integrated approach to recovery. Addiction recovery experts and mental health specialists work together to help you maintain a fulfilling sober future. We apply evidence-based treatment and adopt an integrated and holistic approach to recovery. Alongside customized treatment plans, family therapy, and support groups, Laguna Shores Recovery offers aftercare programs that connect you and your loved one with a community of recovering individuals. Call us at (866) 774-1532 today.