Bipolar disorder is a complex and chronic illness. It produces major shifts in mood and energy. It impairs all areas of a person’s life, including work, relationships and daily functioning. Fortunately, however, effective treatment exists, and you can get better. Below, two bipolar disorder experts share the four keys to successfully managing bipolar disorder, along with overcoming common barriers.
With most psychiatric illnesses, medication is optional, and individuals can improve with other treatments, such as psychotherapy, said John Preston, Psy.D, a psychologist and co-author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and Taking Charge of Bipolar Disorder. However, “Bipolar disorder is probably the main psychiatric disorder where medication is absolutely essential. I’ve had people ask me if there’s any way to do this without medicine. [My answer is] absolutely not.”
Patients typically need to take multiple medications. “On average, people with bipolar disorder take three medicines at the same time,” Preston said. A large study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 89 percent of people with bipolar disorder who were doing well were taking several medications.
“Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while [to find the right medicine]. Almost everyone who’s successful has to go through the same process.” That’s because in order to find the best treatment for each individual, doctors prescribe various medications and combinations. The goal is to find the right combination with the fewest side effects.
Unfortunately, troublesome side effects are the rule, not the exception, Preston said. In fact, around 50 to 60 percent of patients stop taking their medication or don’t take it as prescribed. This is why having regular and honest communication with your prescribing physician is critical.
But many people feel uncomfortable. They don’t want to “complain,” or assume their physician will be upset with them, Preston said. “I find that clients often don’t think they’re allowed to disagree with their doctors, and often end up going off their meds rather than having candid discussions with their doctors,” said Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, a psychotherapist and author of five books, including The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder.
Remember that you and your doctor are a team. “You have every right in the world to talk about every problem you run into,” Preston said.
The other reason people stop their medication is denial or wishful thinking, he said. It can take months after stopping medication for an episode to occur. This only validates the person’s belief that they don’t have the illness.