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Dr. Paul Donohue – Highs and lows of bipolar disorder

Dear Dr. Donohue: Recently, my granddaughter was diagnosed as bipolar. I am very concerned. Is it inherited? Is it possible to live a normal life? Why did it show during her teenage years? She has just finished high school and was an honor student. Is there any support group? — A.B.

Dear A.B.: Bipolar disorder is a psychological condition that has some roots in genes, some in brain chemistry and some in life stresses. It’s a common illness, affecting between 3 percent and 8 percent of the population.

The two “poles” of bipolar are emotional highs and lows. During the high periods, people need less sleep than usual. They have unbelievable reserves of energy. They are talkative and outgoing. None of this sounds bad, but in the extreme it is. During a “high” episode, people often make terrible decisions, act impulsively and take risks that can affect their health and futures. Thinking is disorganized, and hallucinations can develop.

During periods of the other pole — depression — all energy is gone. People take refuge in their bed and want to sleep all the time. They don’t want to interact socially. Concentration is difficult. Self-esteem flies out the window. Suicidal thoughts intrude upon the consciousness.

Brain chemistry is an elusive term, but one that figures greatly into bipolar disorder. Brain chemistry refers to messenger chemicals in the brain — dopamine, serotonin and others — that activate neighboring brain cells and transmit information between brain cells. In bipolar disorder, as in many other disorders, brain chemistry is upset. Medicines can often restore the right chemistry and keep the highs and lows on an even keel.

It most often strikes between the years of 17 and 18. With treatment, your granddaughter ought to do just fine.

The National Mental Health Association can provide you with more information. Its toll-free number is (800) 969-NMHA (969-6642). The Web site is: nmha.org.

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