From: Understanding psychiatric medications: Mood stabilizers - Information for consumers, families and friends (© 2009, 2012 CAMH)
The term “bipolar” refers to the two extremes of mood: mania and depression. People with bipolar disorder usually experience these extremes at different times, although the two mood states can occur together (known as a mixed state). With bipolar disorder, people can also have periods where their mood is balanced. Mood stabilizers can help to keep the mood of a person with bipolar disorder within this balanced range.
Bipolar disorder can make it impossible for people to keep their minds on work or school or to have a twoway relationship with their friends and family. It can also make them impulsive and affect their judgment, leading them to say or do things that are dangerous or that they might later regret. Untreated bipolar disorder is associated with a high risk of suicide.
When people are in a manic state, they sleep little, talk a lot and are active and energetic. They may be happy and feel great or they may be cranky and irritable. In the early stages, they may seem quite productive, but as symptoms worsen, they tend to get more impulsive and start things they do not finish. Their thoughts jump around so fast, it can be hard to follow what they’re saying. They may have delusions, or beliefs that are not based in reality, and hallucinations, such as hearing voices when no one is speaking. They may not be able to see that their judgment and behaviour are unsound or dangerous. Often they use alcohol or other drugs to try to control their mood, which can worsen the situation.
Depression in bipolar disorder can be hard to distinguish from other forms of depression.
Antidepressant medications can be effective; however, they must be used with caution with bipolar disorder as they can also cause a person who is depressed to switch into mania. Antidepressants may also lead to more frequent mood episodes, known as rapid cycling. This risk is lessened if the person is also taking a mood stabilizer.
Treatment with mood stabilizers can reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder and increase people’s ability to pursue their interests and participate more fully in their relationships.