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Who Treats Bipolar Disorder?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Bipolar disorder (BPD) is a complex medical condition that causes a person to have dramatic mood swings. These mood cycles are far from expected changes in a person’s behavior. The highs and lows of BPD can be severe enough to require hospitalization.1

Treatment for BPD is lifelong. It often requires a team of specialist doctors and therapists working together. Generally, the team includes a psychiatrist, therapist, family doctor, and pharmacist.1

Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental health conditions. Psychiatrists can prescribe medicines that help control the dramatic mood swings of BPD.2,3

A psychiatrist can be especially important for successful treatment. This is because people with BPD often have multiple mental health conditions. The most common co-occurring mental health conditions are:1

  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol or other substance use disorder
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline or antisocial personality disorder

Psychiatrists often work with a psychologist, counselor, social worker, or other therapist to provide talk therapy. Talk therapy is also called counseling, or simply therapy.2

Therapists

Psychologists, counselors, therapists, and social workers may have a master’s degree, PhD, or medical degree. They may diagnose mental health conditions like BPD. But unless they have a license as a medical doctor, they cannot prescribe medicine. Generally, these professionals provide talk therapy for people with mental, emotional, or behavioral conditions.2,4

Therapy can help people with BPD cope with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therapy sessions often occur 1-on-1. They also may include loved ones or occur in a group of other people with similar conditions.2,5

There are several types of therapy for people with BPD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended.2,5

CBT is a type of problem-focused therapy. It often occurs in weekly 1-hour sessions. It may last for 12 to 16 weeks, or longer for some people. It is designed to help people change how they view and react to their condition. For example, CBT can help them learn to recognize when mania or depression are coming on. Then, they can get help before their symptoms worsen.5

Family doctor

The psychiatrist and/or psychologist will focus on a person’s bipolar symptoms. But a family doctor can look for and treat other health conditions. This doctor may be a primary care physician, general practitioner, or internist. While not technically doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants also can treat a variety of health conditions.

People with BPD have higher rates of certain health conditions that need treatment. These conditions may include:1

  • Heart (cardiovascular) disease
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Sleep apnea
  • Migraine
  • Metabolic syndrome (a collection of conditions that can lead to heart disease and diabetes)
  • Unhealthy body weight

Unfortunately, people with BPD often do not get treated for these co-occurring conditions. This lack of treatment contributes to worse outcomes for all of their conditions.1

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs)

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) play many roles in the treatment of mental health conditions, including BPD. A PMHNP is a registered nurse with advanced clinical training in mental health disorders.6

When it comes to mental health care, they can provide comprehensive care and support in many ways, including:6

  • Physical exam and medical history
  • Mental health assessment
  • Medicine management
  • Counseling
  • Education

Pharmacist

A pharmacist is a medical professional who specializes in dispensing medicine. In some states, they can prescribe some drugs. Some pharmacists, called psychiatric pharmacists, are experts in mental health drugs. They educate patients about the medicines they take. They also can recommend prescription changes as part of the treatment team to reduce unwanted side effects and drug interactions.2

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