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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:

What Does Journeying with a Psychiatrist for My Mental Health Issue Look Like?

What Does Journeying with a Psychiatrist for My Mental Health Issue Look Like?

For many people, when they hear the word ‘Psychiatrist’, it would instantly conjure up an image of a doctor prescribing medicine for someone with a mental health condition. This is true to the extent that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has undergone training to become a mental health specialist. While prescribing medications are indeed part of the treatment process, what really goes on in between – from the first session to the very end? 

 

On your very first session, your psychiatrist will most likely spend 1-1.5 hours with you to gain a better understanding of what you’re coming in for. Mental health conditions can be a touchy subject for many, and it is understandable that you’d feel hesitant to open up to a complete stranger right away. However, trust that your psychiatrist has your best interests in mind, and will do his/her best to provide optimal treatment. Don’t be afraid of being judged for your symptoms, rest assured that the psychiatrist’s office is a safe and non-judgemental space. The psychiatrist will want to know as much as you’re willing to share, and being honest with your psychiatrist will be extremely helpful for an accurate diagnosis and the development of an effective treatment plan. Just as what you’d expect when you seek a General Practitioner for physical conditions, your psychiatrist would start off by asking broader questions such as, “What brings you here today,” or “How can I help you?” For some individuals, especially if it’s their first time at a psychiatrist’s, open-ended questions like these may be nerve-wracking. You may feel a little overwhelmed, not knowing how to start or where to begin. However, there are no hard and fast rules as to how the session should flow. Simply communicating your symptoms and your concerns would be a great start, and your psychiatrist will guide you through the interview. 

 

Your psychiatrist will also run through a history-taking process, paying special attention to your medical history, family history, your current lifestyle habits and general patterns of sleep. It is important to let your psychiatrist know if you’re on certain medications, as some may have side effects that may fuel certain mental health conditions. Avoid downplaying or dismissing any information related to your physical or mental wellbeing, the clue to an accurate diagnosis may very well lie in the details. As such, going for your first session prepared with a complete list of medications, dosages, and your compliance with them can be very beneficial. Many studies have also shown that genetics play a role in mental health disorders. If you have a family member who suffers from a psychiatric issue, be sure to let your psychiatrist know for him to have a clearer idea of the situation. If need be, your psychiatrist may also ask permission to speak with other family members.

 

Depending on the patient’s circumstance, the psychiatrist may conduct a physical check-up if necessary, or possibly laboratory tests to exclude other possible causes for your condition. These are done to confirm that what you’re experiencing are not due to other medical conditions which may give rise to similar symptoms. Hence, if your psychiatrist asks for these procedures to be carried out, don’t feel too worried! Questionnaires to further assess your symptoms may also be given, so do make sure to answer them as truthfully as possible.

 

Depending on the complexities of your condition, medication options or other forms of treatment may be prescribed. If you are given medications, the psychiatrist would counsel you on how you can tell if the medications are working. Over the course of your recovery journey, take note of how subtle changes to the medications made by your psychiatrist affects you. Do they stabilise or improve your condition, or do they seem to send you on a downward spiral? How have you been feeling since you started taking them? Whatever the outcome, keep your psychiatrist in the know of how you’re coping. In the same vein, it is very important that you do not adjust your medications on your own without seeking professional advice! Patients may get impatient if they’re not seeing the desired change after a while, but constant and unregulated changes can cause undesirable fluctuations, potentially worsening the situation. We need to understand that there could be catastrophic, life-threatening consequences if we do not take them seriously.

 

In general, psychiatrists usually work closely with psychologists and therapists, as some mental health conditions are best treated with both neuropharmacological support and psychotherapy. Thus, your psychiatrist may also refer you for psychotherapy if deemed fit. Depending on the level of care required to address the patient’s symptoms, psychiatrists may recommend treatment programmes if more intensive care is needed. 

 

It is natural to feel nervous or uncomfortable about seeing a psychiatrist, but don’t let these emotions hold you back from getting the help you need. We hope that giving you a better sense of what to expect will help alleviate your concerns, and give you the courage to seek professional help.

 

References:

  1. Psychiatrists and psychiatry. Healthdirect.gov.au. (Accessed 21/05/2021)
  2. What Questions Do Psychiatrists Ask? | PHS San Diego (Accessed 21/05/2021)
  3. What to Expect During Your First Psychiatry Appointment (Accessed 22/05/2021)