The relationship between mental disorder and genius has been raging since the days of Aristotle, who claimed that one could not exist without the other. It’s been particularly linked to the mania (‘high’ moods) that accompanies bipolar disorder. Famous sufferers of bipolar disorder include Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Stephen Fry, Ernest Hemingway and Vivien Leigh. Yet, as a close friend with bipolar disorder argues, all the brains in the world aren’t much use if you can’t get out of bed.
So what is bipolar disorder? Or, as it used to be known, manic depression?
One million people in the UK are estimated to be bipolar. There’s no single definition of the disorder. Instead, sufferers are placed on the ‘bipolar spectrum’, according to the type and severity of their mood swings. Those with Bipolar 1, experience full-blown manic episodes as well as depression, whilst those with Bipolar II tend to experience less severe bouts of ‘hypomania’.
Mania is characterized by an elevated and/or irritated mood that lasts at least a week, leads to hospitalization or dangerous behaviour. Other symptoms include decreased need for sleep and overfocused, distractible or risky behaviour.
Hypomania can be a precursor to mania, but is less severe. Signs are similar – increased irritability and an overly cheerful mood. Some call it ‘mania light’ – because the episode doesn’t interfere with normal life or lead to hospitalisation. But it can also be serious.
Catherine Zeta-Jones made media headlines recently, when she announced that she suffered from Bipolar II. In fact, the disorder seems to be escalating at an alarming rate. Between 1994 and 2003, the Archives of General Psychiatry reported a forty-fold increase in the number of American children diagnosed with the disorder. However, a study carried out in 2001 found that almost half of bipolar diagnoses made in US adolescents were later reclassified as less serious mental conditions. It’s been suggested that this is because the spectrum model allows for the ups and downs of everyday life to be over-diagnosed.