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Health Team

Early Diagnosis Could Prevent Years of Anguish for Bipolar Patients

Posted March 7, 2008 7:06 p.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2008 7:54 p.m. EST

Doctors are looking to prevent years of anguish for people who suffer serious and drastic mood swings caused by bipolar disorder.

George Gordon, 55, has been plagued by bipolar disorder since he was a child.

He would suffer deep depression. Then his mood would swing to the other end of the scale.

"In the family, growing up, I suspected something was different about me," Gordon said. He did not know what was wrong, however, and delayed seeking help.

Dr. Eric Youngstrom, a University of North Carolina psychologist, says most people with bipolar disorder suffer for 11 to 19 years before they are properly diagnosed and begin to receive treatment.

"The stigma of mental health is what kept me from seeking aid – you know, assistance – earlier than I did," Gordon said.

Youngstrom says that is more a failure of the mental-health system than of the patients.

"What we had been doing is sitting in the hospital waiting for the heart attack," he said, using an analogy to a physical illness. "And what we're realizing now is, you know, we could have prevented that risk."

Doctors could have prevented suffering by recognizing bipolar disorder's traits as early as childhood.

There is effective medication available. And, as Gordon learned, regular counseling is just as important.

"It's a lot more manageable, and I'm thinking a lot more clearly now," he said. "I'm not doing things on the spur of the moment. I'm not maxing out the credit cards to make myself feel better."

He hopes what he learned might help a younger generation.

"They don't have to suffer like I suffered for those 30 years," he said.