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Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Written by: Dr. Joseph Leong Jern-Yi

Understanding Bipolar & Schizophrenia

Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were considered severe mental illnesses with no recovery in the past. This is not true in modern psychiatry as we have developed more effective treatments such as medications (psycho-pharmacology) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) which help patients improve their quality of life as well as reduce symptoms and restore function.

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may have similar symptoms which are disturbances in thinking, feelings and behaviour. The major difference is that bipolar disorder is classified as a mood disorder whereas schizophrenia is classified as a psychotic disorder. Mental healthcare professionals make diagnoses based on reports of patients, caregivers, or other information sources as well as observations made during the assessment interview.

Experts have also formulated that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may be a spectrum disorder with schizophrenia on one end and bipolar disorder on the other end with schizoaffective disorder in the middle of the spectrum.

What is more important however is not the exact diagnosis alone but rather the identification of symptoms so that treatment can be effectively targeted at the relief of the symptoms, restoring function and improving quality of life. This targeted symptom approach has proven to be one of the most effective ways of helping persons recover from these brain conditions.

Let’s discuss some of the common symptoms –

Delusions, which are untrue, unshakable, and unshared beliefs which can exist in both brain conditions.

For example, delusions of persecution which are beliefs of being targeted, being followed, being sabotaged (persecutory) are common in schizophrenia while delusions of grandiosity such as believing that they are particularly important persons and have special powers or ability to save the world (grandiose delusions) are more common in bipolar disorder. For persons with schizoaffective disorder, they might have both persecutory and grandiose delusions at the same time. It also has an underlying co-occurring mood disorder.  

Hallucinations which are perceptual disturbances such as hearing voices which are not heard by others, seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things which are not present are more likely to happen in schizophrenia.

Severe mood swings and manic episodes where the person has fast speech and high energy levels are associated with abnormal spending, socialising, exercising, or expanding businesses with the need for very little sleep over a few days and weeks are more likely to happen in bipolar disorder.

More than half a century ago, most persons suffering from these brain conditions were isolated and confined to asylums as there were no effective treatments until the discovery of medications that can change brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters which are chemicals responsible for brain and other bodily functions were discovered. Noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine disturbances were more likely causes in bipolar disorder while dopamine imbalance was a more probable cause of schizophrenia. See https://dana.org/article/neurotransmitters/

 

The Help Of Modern Medicine

Modern psychopharmacology offers an array of medications which can act on various neurotransmitter sites in the brain. Several medications and several rounds of adjustment and fine-tuning may often be needed to achieve stabilisation with medications with relief of symptoms. This is best done collaboratively with the patient, psychiatrist, and caregiver at the consultation with all the medications brought in for review.

Adjusting to a new medication through an effective therapeutic trial may take at least 2 weeks, starting with the lowest dose and increasing dosing to a maximised symptom relief dose over 2 months. 

Medications need to be taken daily to be effective, and this is best done using a pill box and with supervision from a loved one. Medications are served by nurses in the inpatient hospital setting who ensure that the correct dose is directly observed to be taken by the patient – however, this is often lacking in the outpatient setting leading to the return of the symptoms causing distress and dysfunction.

 

Bipolar & Schizophrenia Treatment Methods

Comparing bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to other brain conditions may be helpful in understanding how one can better achieve remission and recovery. 

Epilepsy is a brain condition where there are electrical firing of neurons causing disturbances in thinking, feeling and behaviour. To stay in control of oneself, the doctor may recommend various combinations of anti-epileptic medications to prevent another seizure. In fact, the model of kindling in epilepsy has been used to understand mental health treatment in this highly readable resource essay – https://aeon.co/essays/should-the-kindling-concept-direct-mental-health-treatment

If you speak to someone with experience with epilepsy, they will tell you about ‘warning signs’ and the ‘confusional state’ after a breakthrough seizure.

Similarly, for those struggling with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, one becomes more aware of ‘warning signs’, and ‘confusional states’ through direct feedback from loved ones who are observant and psycho-educated by healthcare professionals. Charting, monitoring and sharing your experience are key to success in achieving remission and recovery. Use this mood chart and share it with your mental healthcare professionals for more in-depth analysis – https://loricalabresemd.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Personalized-Mood_Chart.pdf

Symptoms management starts with monitoring your symptoms and the response to the treatment – what makes it better, what makes it worse, whether it is mild, moderate or severe. The frequency, intensity and severity can be charted so that effective treatment of psycho-pharmacology (active use of medications) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) can be targeted to achieve the best outcome for you.

 

Recovery Is Possible

Your mental healthcare professional can coach and pace you so that it will not be overwhelming. Recovery starts with taking it one day at a time. Be gentle with yourself. Learn to trust and entrust your healing to people who care about you. Learning from feedback as well as charting, monitoring and sharing your experience with loved ones – trusted family or friends or co-workers greatly enhance effectiveness.

Atomic habits by James Clear is an excellent book which illustrates the importance of charting, monitoring and shaping your habits, on the premise of improving 1% daily leading to more than 365% improvement in one year. This is Youtube illustrates how that can happen – “How to become 37.78 times better at anything”. 

There are many services available at Promises Healthcare and Community Partners which can help reduce symptoms, restore function, and improve quality of life. Recovery is possible and becomes a reality with appropriate support and adequate skill training. With the right help and support, persons in recovery can live meaningful and satisfying lives.

Here are some real stories that illustrate many facets of mental health and recovery:

Types of Psychotherapy Methods (DBT vs ACT) Used To Treat Depression

Types of Psychotherapy Methods (DBT vs ACT) Used To Treat Depression

Many of us are absorbed in an endless, self-defeating rat race. The nature of modern society has instilled in us a “winner/loser” mindset, and its systems highly prioritise external rewards and punishments as measures of our personal success and social worth. This oftentimes forces us to shift our perception of self-worth from the satisfying efforts of personal endeavour, to the critical imperative of achieving yardsticks of success defined by the rest of society. When we are constantly striving to win a race while focusing on external factors largely beyond our design or control, we’re surely putting ourselves at a disadvantageous position.

The overwhelming pressure to conform to societal expectations, or to outrun others in the race of life, can make one particularly susceptible to depression if negative emotions are not managed well. As we aim for perfection – as most people would – we need to understand that total perfection is unattainable. The more we believe that we have failed to reach a certain state of “perfection”, the greater the extent to which we experience low self-esteem, self-hatred, and depression. Depression can be extremely debilitating to one’s mental health. Apart from the diminishing enthusiasm for life and self-esteem, depressed individuals may self-isolate and pull away from their social circles, making it all the more difficult for them to get the help they need. 

Perhaps one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to accept who we are. Self-acceptance might just be the antidote to excessive self-resentment and discontentment. It is important that we fight against influences that force us to conform to certain standards rather than to accept ourselves.  Presented below are a couple of talk therapy methods that we use to guide you towards achieving that. 

What is ACT?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of talk therapy suitable for the treatment of individuals displaying symptoms of depression. As its name suggests, it’s core aims are to help individuals accept whatever is beyond their control, and to commit to actions or habits that will serve to enrich their quality of life. ACT helps us to clarify what is genuinely important to us (i.e our values), and thus assists us to set more meaningful and life-enriching goals. Along the way, it also guides us to practise useful emotion-coping strategies such as mindfulness in order to equip us with skills to handle negative emotions effectively and healthily. While the number of ACT sessions may differ for each individual, the benefits acquired by clients are largely similar:

  • Learning to be fully present in the “here-and-now”, and to stop obsessive worrying over the past or future
  • Become aware of what they are avoiding (be it consciously or subconsciously), and to increase self-awareness
  • Learning to enjoy greater balance and emotional stability, and to be less upset by unpleasant experiences
  • Learning to observe thoughts such that one does not feel held captive by them, and to develop openness
  • To develop self-acceptance and self-compassion
  • Clarifying one’s personal values and taking the appropriate action towards his goals.

You may be wondering, does it really work? The good news is that ACT is considered to be an empirically validated treatment by the American Psychological Association (APA). Through program evaluation data, research has also shown that Veterans who completed ACT treatment phases displayed a significant decrease in depression in addition to improved self-awareness and a better quality of life.

 

What is DBT?

Apart from ACT, another alternative for the treatment of depression is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). While originally used for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, DBT has since been adapted to treat other mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A type of cognitive behavioural therapy, DBT aims to help individuals who struggle with emotional-regulation and are exhibiting maladaptive or self-destructing behaviours. It is not an uncommon sight for persons with depression to engage in substance-abuse or self-harm. As such, DBT helps to build on distress tolerance, such that people who struggle with these are able to handle negative life-circumstances better and to avoid falling back on such devastating coping methods.

DBT can be considered a holistic approach to depression treatment. Apart from tackling maladaptive behaviours, it encourages a shift in the clients’ perspective on life, for it equips them with the necessary skills to cope with intense emotions. In short, it empowers you to cope with them with a positive outlook. DBT also recognises that interpersonal effectiveness is key, and hence it strives to help these troubled individuals to reconnect and enhance their relationships with others. 

 

ACT Versus DBT

ACT and DBT are both highly effective methods of treatment for depression. Both forms of psychotherapy allow for individuals to tackle the notion of suffering head-on, and to avoid suppressing undesirable or uncomfortable feelings. Both promote psychological flexibility, and encourage people to behave in a conscious or effective way towards their life-choosing directions. The practice of mindfulness is also a commonality between both therapy methods, and it plays a crucial role in ensuring that persons are well aware of their values, goals and emotions.

However, overlaps between the two are considerably limited too. The main differences between ACT and DBT would be that DBT leans towards a more educative approach while ACT emphasises an experiential one. Perspective wise, DBT adopts a biosocial perspective on behaviour while that of ACT is contextual. Moreover, the underlying philosophy behind each form of therapy also differs. DBT philosophy is dialectical (i.e using logical reasoning and analysis), while the philosophy behind ACT is functional contextualism. With that said, the analysis of clients’ experiences, the use of languages as well as experiential exercises will be different for each type of therapy.

Seeking professional help can be rather daunting, but we need to recognise that psychotherapy is called for if one struggles to accept himself. Don’t deal with depression alone, lean into your support systems and mental health professionals when you need to – your future self will thank you.

 


References:

  1. Richard Hill, The Rise and Rise of Depression in a Competitive Winner/Loser World, video recording, Mental Health Academy

<https://www.mentalhealthacademy.co.uk/dashboard/catalogue/the-rise-and-rise-of-depression-in-a-competitive-winner-loser-world/video> (Accessed 13/02/2021)

  1. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/depression/act-d.asp  (Accessed 13/02/2021)
  2. https://behavior-behavior.org/act-fap-dbt/ (Accessed 13/02/2021)