Margaret Trudeau

In Depth

Mental Health

Stripping the stigma of bipolar disorder

Last Updated September 4, 2007

Margaret Trudeau understood she risked societal censure when she spoke out about the bipolar disorder that has plagued her for years.

"I suffered tremendous loss because of my reluctance to come forward for help and not recognizing what was happening to me," the former wife of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau said this month in Ottawa, where she was helping raise awareness for a psychiatric hospital.

More than 40 years after bipolar disorder was first recognized as a distinct form of mental illness, sufferers continue to struggle not only with their symptoms, but with the taboos linked with the condition.

Trudeau said she decided to go public in the hope that it might encourage others suffering from mental illness to seek treatment.

So what is bipolar disorder and what can someone seeking treatment expect?

Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression. Its symptoms include extreme mood swings. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a teaching hospital in Toronto, the disorder typically consists of three states:

  • A high state, called "mania."
  • A low state, called "depression."
  • A well state, during which many people feel normal and function well.

Dr. Pierre Blier, a psychiatrist with the Royal Ottawa Hospital where Trudeau made her illness public, said people with the disorder "oscillate between periods of euphoria - with its decreased need to sleep, racing thoughts and risky behaviours - and depression."

Sufferers often liken the illness to a wild emotional roller-coaster ride, alternating between euphoric highs and devastating lows.

When they are manic, they seem to have limitless energy and may do dangerous or unusual things because they feel invincible. When they are depressed, they may have trouble just getting out of bed and feel suicidal.

Blier says there are two distinct types of bipolar disorders - Type 1 and Type 2.

Those with Type 1 often need to be hospitalized because their mood swings are so severe that they can endanger themselves. Type 2 individuals experience milder symptoms.

Pregnant women at risk

Blier estimates bipolar disorder affects about two per cent of the population, plaguing men and women in equal numbers.

Women may begin showing symptoms after pregnancy, as was the case for Trudeau, whose disorder began with post-partum depression following the birth of her second son, Alexandre, in 1973. In this case, symptoms of depression are more common than symptoms of mania.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, some people with bipolar disorder may also experience psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices or becoming convinced of things that are not based in reality.

They may also have problems with movement, called catatonic symptoms. This includes "extreme physical agitation or slowness, and odd movements or postures [that] occur in up to 25 per cent of people experiencing episodes of depression or mania."

People with bipolar disorder who have psychotic or catatonic symptoms are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia, another mental illness.

There is no lab test or brain scan that definitely proves a person has bipolar disorder. Instead, doctors diagnose the illness through a careful screening of a group of symptoms.

Meanwhile, a study published in the September issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, found that the number of American adults diagnosed with bipolar disorder doubled between 1994 and 2003. In children, aged 19 and under, the diagnoses of the disorder soared from 25 cases per 100,000 in 1995 to 1,003 in 2003.

The researchers say bipolar disorder was either historically under-diagnosed in children or adolescents and that problem has been corrected, or it is currently being over-diagnosed in that age category.

The researchers say it's critical that the medical community reaches a consensus regarding diagnostic assessment methods, as many include symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in their criteria for bipolar disorder.

The symptoms of ADHD, which is usually diagnosed in children, include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Almost two-thirds of young people diagnosed with bipolar disorder were male, while just over two-thirds of the adults diagnosed with it were women.

Seek help late in illness

"Unless patients are totally out of control in their manic phase, most will come to a doctor in a depressive phase," said Blier.

But with a bit of prodding, a doctor familiar with the illness can uncover manic phases that help in making a diagnosis, he said.

No one knows for certain what causes bipolar disorder, but mental health advocates stress that it is not the patient's fault.

"It is not caused by bad parenting, nor is it a consequence of a personality disorder, moral weakness or a fault in character," according to literature from the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, a charitable group that advocates on behalf of those with mood conditions.

Stress or difficult family relationships do not cause the illness, but they can trigger an episode in someone who already has bipolar disorder.

Research suggests genes may play an important role and cause changes in brain chemistry that bring on bipolar disorder.

The Mood Disorders Society estimates people with the illness will see three to four doctors and spend more than eight years seeking treatment before they are accurately diagnosed.

And diagnosis is important, say mental health advocates, because it means doctors can then prescribe treatment, which usually involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Medications even out moods

Drugs typically prescribed for bipolar disorder affect chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, which transmit messages from one nerve cell to another.

Medications include mood stabilizers such as lithium, lamotrigine and valproic acid. The later two are also anticonvulsants. Anti-psychotic drugs and anti-depressants are also often prescribed.

"The most important point is that we do have a variety of treatments and it is possible to treat patients to full remission, provided they take their medication," said Blier.

But it can be difficult to convince patients to consistently swallow their pills. When they experience a euphoric phase, people can be energetic and productive. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, for example.

"They enjoy it. That's when they stop their medication," said Blier, who warns of the risk of sinking back into depression and suicidal thoughts.

Trudeau, who sought treatment after her son Michel died in an avalanche accident in 1998 and after the death of the former prime minister two years later, said treatment has made a huge difference in her life.

"I felt I was broken for a long time, and now I am whole," she said. "I have my life back after years of struggle."

Go to the Top


World »

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announcing 'major changes' in wake of deadly school shooting
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is announcing what he calls "major changes" to help keep students safe in the wake of last week's deadly high school shooting — just days after he chose not to appear at a televised town hall where survivors faced off against politicians over the country's gun laws.
Dying of neglect: eastern Ghouta under siege is a hell on earth
Eastern Ghouta is running out of almost everything, but there is no shortage of ways to die. It is back in the world's gaze in a torrent of airstrikes, mortars, rockets and barrel bombs.
Analysis Making sense of President Trump's attacks on the FBI: Keith Boag
For a split second last weekend it seemed Donald Trump might be coming around on the FBI's probe into Russia's election meddling and that he was almost ready to accept there might, in fact, be a real point to it. Then he finished his thought.
more »

Canada »

Crown's 'very thin case' against Raymond Cormier made conviction unlikely, lawyers say
While the acquittal of Raymond Cormier on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine shocked many people, legal experts say there wasn't much else the jury could do.
Canada to play for Olympic men's hockey bronze after stunning loss to Germany
Germans halt 15-game losing streak vs. Canada, will meet Olympic Athletes from Russia on Saturday in final
Breaking Bruce McArthur charged with 1st-degree murder in 6th man's death
Alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur is now facing a sixth charge of first-degree murder, this time in the death of Skandaraj Navaratnam, whose remains were found in a planter seized from a property linked to the landscaper.
more »

Politics »

Environmental groups pinning hopes on major spending for conservation in budget
Conservation groups are predicting the federal budget could include up to $1.4 billion to protect land and water in Canada.
Analysis If history is any guide, Patrick Brown's comeback bid faces long odds
Patrick Brown's bid to regain the leadership of the Ontario PCs is unprecedented in many ways, but he isn't the first leader on the outs to try to get himself back in.
Why some say Canada's 'gold-digger' legislation needs to go
Despite the fact they've been married for more than a decade, Beverly Duffney won't be eligible for Ed's military pension if he passes away before she does. But a private member's bill aims to do away with the federal government's so-called gold-digger legislation.
more »

Health »

Sorry - we can't find that page

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

Harvey Weinstein apologizes for citing Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence in court
Harvey Weinstein apologized to Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence after his lawyers cited them in asking a court to dismiss a sexual misconduct lawsuit.
'I've never seen anything quite like this': Canadian designers basking in Meghan Markle effect video
Canadian fashion designers are benefiting from the so-called Markle effect, the term used to describe an instant spike in demand for clothing, jewelry and other items Meghan Markle wears since she and Prince Harry announced their engagement last November.
Saudi Arabia to build opera house in bid to shed conservative image, lure tourists
Saudi Arabia, a state where concerts are banned and music is prohibited in restaurants and stores, says construction will begin on the kingdom's first-ever opera house as it moves to shake off its conservative image and lure in tourist dollars.
more »

Technology & Science »

How fossil footprints found on a Greek holiday could rewrite the history of humanity
In 2002, a Polish paleontologist found what he thinks are the oldest human-like footprints in the world. Thus began a vicious fight over a discovery that raises new questions about our evolution.
'Tiny trash' a big problem for Canada's shorelines
Small pieces of plastic and foam topped the list of types of litter found along Canada’s shorelines during cleanups last year, beating out the usual winner — cigarette butts.
SECOND OPINION How many new drugs rely on government-funded science? All of them
There’s public science in every single new drug. That was the surprising answer to a U.S. senator’s question about how government-funded research is benefitting citizens. But it took a year to come up with the numbers.
more »

Money »

Auto sales to dip in most provinces, led by Ontario's 3.1% drop, Scotiabank says
Scotiabank says that slower job creation and weaker gains in household wealth will likely contribute to softer Canadian sales of cars and light trucks this year.
RBC hikes dividend as flat first-quarter profit still beats expectations
Royal Bank of Canada hiked its dividend as it reported a first-quarter profit of $3 billion, which was relatively flat compared with a year ago but beat expectations.
Annual inflation rate eases slightly in January
Statistics Canada reported Friday that the consumer price index rose 1.7 per cent year-over-year in January, a slight cooling from the 1.9 per cent increase seen in December.
more »

Consumer Life »

Sorry - we can't find that page

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Canada to play for men's hockey bronze after stunning loss to Germany
Germany delivered its second straight upset of the Olympic men's hockey tournament, beating Canada 4-3 on Friday to clinch a berth in Saturday's final against the gold-medal favourites from Russia.
Live Watch the Olympic Games Hockey Show
Watch Olympic Games Hockey on CBC for tournament highlights and analysis.
Kevin Koe's team hits 'rock bottom' with bronze-game defeat
A day after their semifinal defeat to the United States, Koe and his Calgary rink lost Friday's Olympic bronze-medal game 7-5 to Switzerland, meaning Canada will leave the Winter Olympics without a medal in traditional curling for the first time ever.
more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »