Expert clarifies misperceptions and myths about bipolar disorder

APA member and bipolar disorder expert Eric A. Youngstrom, PhD, answers some of the most common questions about bipolar disorder and talks about psychology’s effectiveness in treating the illness.

Media coverage of people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder usually does not fully explain this serious mental illness, how best to treat it and how it can affect those who have it, as well as their families, friends and coworkers. To explain what bipolar disorder is and psychology’s role in identifying and treating it, APA asked Eric A. Youngstrom, PhD, to share his knowledge about this mental illness.

Psychotherapy offers “great promise as a way of preventing progression of bipolar disorder,” according to Youngstrom, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and acting director of the Center of Excellence for Research and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder.

“Although we have long thought of bipolar disorder as a ‘mood disorder,’ we’re learning that focusing on shifts in energy may be a more accurate way of detecting episodes of the illness,” Youngstrom says. He recommends psychologists treating people with the disorder help individuals make the most of their gifts and abilities while also working to reduce the symptoms of their condition.

What may appear to be a dramatic increase in bipolar disorder in the United States may not be the case, Youngstrom points out. “When something is rarely or never diagnosed and then starts to be recognized, the change in the rates can be misleading — 40 times more than something very small is still a small rate. The increase is just much smaller than the changes in attention by the media and clinicians.”

The disorder is more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries, with more than 4 percent of Americans having met the diagnostic criteria for the disorder — double the global average of 2 percent, according to Youngstrom. Among young people, bipolar disorder is not as common as depression or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, but is twice as common as autistic spectrum disorders. In addition, bipolar disorder is frequently misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, conduct disorder or antisocial behavior, especially among some ethnic minority groups, he says.

Further Action

APA continuing education credits are available for those interested in online courses taught by Youngstrom on bipolar disorder in children and adolescents as well as how to treat the disorder across the life cycle. Clinicians may also obtain a training video providing a family-oriented approach to working with young clients with the illness.

The 10th International Conference on Bipolar Disorder, a meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, will be held on June 13-16, 2013, in Miami. The conference will bring together researchers to discuss findings, possible treatments, education and communication between patient and specialist, as well as review how different cultures treat bipolar disorder.

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