Bipolar Disorder and Comorbidity

Bipolar Disorder and Comorbidity

Bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness that is characterized by steep fluctuations in mood, ranging from periods of extreme high mood or euphoria (mania or hypomania) to periods of extremely low mood (depression). It is estimated that nearly 5 percent of American adults will be diagnosed with bipolar disorder in their lifetime.

While bipolar disorder can be a standalone diagnosis, it’s often comorbid with other mental health conditions. Comorbidity means that two or more disorders are present simultaneously. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than half of people with bipolar disorder also have a comorbid psychiatric disorder.

Here’s an overview of some of the most common mental health conditions that can occur alongside bipolar disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental disorders that tend to occur alongside bipolar disorder. They are characterized by feelings of fear, worry, and apprehension. Those with anxiety disorders often have difficulty relaxing or sleeping, and may experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Studies show that about 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder also have an anxiety disorder. 

Substance Use Disorders (SUD)

Another common comorbidity of bipolar disorder is substance abuse disorder. Substance abuse disorders are characterized by a pattern of using a substance despite it causing negative consequences. These negative consequences may include job loss, financial problems, legal trouble, and relationship problems. People with bipolar disorder may turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms. Research shows that SUD is more common in people with bipolar I disorder (61 percent prevalence rate) as opposed to bipolar II disorder (46 percent prevalence).

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are another commonly diagnosed comorbidity of bipolar disorder. Eating disorders are characterized by abnormal eating habits that can negatively affect one’s physical and mental health. People with eating disorders may severely restrict their food intake, binge eat, or purge after eating.

Other possible but rare psychiatric disorders that may occur alongside bipolar disorder include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and personality disorders. In addition to comorbid mental health illnesses, it is not uncommon for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder to develop physical health problems as well. These can include obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Possible Complications

The presence of comorbid mental illness can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder. That’s because each additional mental health condition brings with it a unique set of symptoms that must be considered when developing a treatment plan. What’s more, some treatments that are effective for one condition may not be appropriate for another. As such, it’s important to work with a mental health professional who is experienced in treating patients with multiple diagnoses. 

Comorbidity can also increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In fact, studies show that people with comorbid psychiatric disorders are significantly more likely to attempt or die suicide than those with only have one diagnosis.

The Takeaway

Bipolar disorder is a complex mental illness that often coexists with other mental disorders. The most common comorbidities include anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it is crucial to seek treatment from a qualified professional who can help manage all of the different aspects of the illness.

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