Aging and population growth has driven the global census of people living with bipolar disorder to an all-time high.
Unfortunately, an unprecedented number of people – more than 80 percent of those diagnosed in the United States – are suffering needlessly in an era when modern medications can allow people with the illness to live productive lives.
The new numbers were published Aug. 27 in the journal Bipolar Disorders. The authors concluded there were almost 49 million people on earth living with bipolar disorders, up from 32.7 million in 1990.1
The findings came from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, with data coming from a systematic review of published literature. The authors broke down the bipolar population by country, age, sex and year. They also arrived at disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs.
DALYs measure the burden of the disease in years of quality life lost. Bipolar disorder accounted for almost 10 million DALYs in 2013. The authors calculated 5.5 million DALYs for females and 4.4 million for males. DALYs began at age 10, peaked in the 20s, and then began to decline thereafter. The measure of suffering was fairly constant worldwide, the authors reported.
“Despite being relatively rare, bipolar disorder is a disabling illness due to its early onset, severity and chronicity,” the authors concluded. “Population growth and aging are leading to an increase in the burden of bipolar disorder over time. It is important that resources be directed toward improving the coverage of evidence-based intervention strategies for bipolar disorder and establishing strategies to prevent new cases of the disorder.”
“Population growth and aging are leading to an increase in the burden of bipolar disorder over time. It is important that resources be directed toward improving the coverage of evidence-based intervention strategies for bipolar disorder and establishing strategies to prevent new cases of the disorder.”
In the U.S., People with Bipolar Disorders Still Face a Stigma
In the United States, approximately 2.6 percent of the population suffers from bipolar disorder, with 83 percent of those having a severe affliction, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Only 18.8 percent are receiving “minimally adequate treatment,” according to the NIMH.2
Many people with bipolar disorder do not seek treatment because the disease is perhaps one of the most highly stigmatized mental illnesses in the U.S. The term “bipolar” has even been made light of in popular culture, on television and at the movies.
The truth is that bipolar people have also been shown to be among the most intelligent, sensitive and intuitive people in any community. Many don’t want to seek treatment because when they are feeling fine, they do not see that they may be slipping away from reality. The manic phase of the disorder can give them boundless energy and the ability to multi-task and thrive in demanding, high-stress work environments.
During bouts of depression, however, many can slip into a dark abyss, and even attempt suicide.
When those with bipolar disorder try to medicate themselves with drugs or alcohol, it can make it difficult for a therapist to tell whether a patient simply has a substance use problem or other mental health disorders.
Cathryn: Stability More Important than a Dress Size
For all of these reasons, mental health professionals admit better treatments are needed. Most drugs only treat one symptom or the other – either the mania or the depression. Traditional treatments, such as lithium, work wonderfully for some patients with few side effects. For others, they are ineffective.
Cathryn M. said she finally found the right mix of help after many years of suffering with bipolar disorder. She suffered through some extreme, traumatic situations as young adult. She thought people were out to get her and she even called the White House and the FBI. “I have a wonderful best friend named Melissa who listens to me and is a great friend,” she writes on the Heroes in Recovery website, a site dedicated to sharing the stories of sober people living fulfilling, mentally healthy lives. “Everything in my life has changed for the better.”
“I understand my medications. I am at a point now where I will be starting to work out more. All the medicines caused weight gain. But now I am stable, and that is way more important than a dress size. I am proud of myself and know that each day I will become stronger.”
Antipsychotics used to treat the manic phase can cause people who work intellectually to be unable to think clearly as well as gain weight. They can cause lethargy and, in some cases, send a manic person into depression. Antidepressants, meanwhile, can send a depressed person back into dangerous levels of mania.
Treating bipolar is a difficult challenge for clinicians. But there is hope on the horizon.
More Effective Medications May Be on the Way
According to the website MedCityNews.com, four academic research institutions and two pharmaceutical companies have teamed up in a $15.4 million effort to develop new drugs for treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Funding has come from the National Institute of Mental Health.4 Partners include Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of medicine, Janssen Research (part of Johnson & Johnson) and Cellular Dynamics International.
The consortium will use donated skin cells from people with bipolar disorder to convert them “into neurons and other bran cell types to study the genetic and other underlying mechanisms of the disease,” according to MedCityNews.com. “Johns Hopkins’ (Hongjun) Song said stem cells hold tremendous potential in the search for treatments and cures of disease, but noted there has been a bottleneck in stem cell research … He said this collaboration gathers the resources to create robust, reproducible tests used to develop new drugs.”
Yet another possible new breakthrough treatment for people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was unveiled Sept. 19 at the European College of Neuropharmacology’s annual conference.5 It uses EPO, a performance-enhancing hormone used by athletes, to increase thinking abilities in people with bipolar disorder.
“We need bigger studies to confirm that the effects we have seen can be replicated,” Dr. Kamila Miskowiak, lead researcher, told UPI.com.6 “EPO is already used medically, so we know quite a lot about safety. Although EPO is generally safe if patients’ red blood cell levels are controlled regularly, there are certain groups for whom the risk of blood clots is too high – for example, people who smoke or who previously have had blood clots.”
Cathryn M. implores those suffering with bipolar disorder to not be discouraged while trying to find the right treatment for them.
“I know that there are so many beautiful human beings out there with a mental illness who don’t know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Cathryn M. writes on the Heroes in Recovery site. “Bipolar lasts forever, but it is treatable. If you are on the wrong medications, change them. If you are seeing a doctor who is not helping you, get a different doctor. Keep reaching for sanity because it is there. I promise you. I never thought I would be where I am today. I am unique. I have character. I love me. I am a miracle.”
“Bipolar lasts forever, but it is treatable. If you are on the wrong medications, change them. If you are seeing a doctor who is not helping you, get a different doctor. Keep reaching for sanity because it is there. I promise you. I never thought I would be where I am today. I am unique. I have character. I love me. I am a miracle.” -Cathryn M.