In short: yes, you can die from bipolar disorder.
Now, I know, many people would disagree with me on this, after all, bipolar disorder doesn’t produce a tumour in your body that will eventually kill you, it doesn’t create plaque in your arteries to eventually kill you and it doesn’t spread a virus through your cells to eventually kill you. I know, bipolar is not like that.
But, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide takes over 35,000 lives a year in the United States and many of these are our brothers and sisters with bipolar disorder. You think that suicide isn’t the same thing as death by bipolar disorder? Think again.
Bipolar and Suicide
Suicide and suicide attempts are seriously bipolar things. It used to be estimated that 1-in-5 people with bipolar disorder would commit suicide but that number has now been updated to a little more than 1-in-10. Doing pretty well, right?
Well, not exactly. I mean if your doctor told you that you just contracted a disease with a 10% chance of death you’d be pretty freaked out, but people don’t talk in those terms about bipolar disorder.
Really though, they should. Doctors should talk in terms of percent risk of death because people need to take that risk seriously. Just like if you had a cancer with a 10% risk of death, you would do things to manage that risk as best you could, people with bipolar disorder need to manage the overwhelming risk of suicide as best they can as well.
Bipolar and Suicide Attempts
And while a suicide attempt isn’t the same thing as a death by bipolar disorder, let’s not forget that more than half of people with bipolar disorder do attempt suicide and that suicide attempt can be pretty devastating.
Bipolar Causes Death
Suicide ideation and suicidal behaviors are actual symptoms of bipolar disorder noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). So if suicide is a symptom of bipolar disorder then it seems to me that bipolar, then, is the cause of death as it is the cause of the symptom. Without the bipolar disorder, the person would have no symptom and without the symptom the person would not have died.
I’m not saying that there’s no personal responsibility when it comes to suicidal behaviors – of course there is – but there’s personal responsibility in cancer patients who continue to smoke too. It is the cancer that kills them but they are responsible for increasing the risk.
Decreasing the Risk of Suicide
Mixed moods are known to increase the risk of suicide so I think the first way to manage the risk of suicide is to get those under control. This should be a high priority for any patient and any doctor. If you find yourself in a mixed mood unexpectedly, then getting help for it should be an immediate priority and not just something you wait until your next appointment to deal with. Manage that risk.
Of course, depressions also put people at risk of suicide. Naturally, this means that depressions should aggressively be treated as well. One serious option to consider is lithium as lithium is one of the few drugs we know that has been scientifically shown to have anti-suicidal properties (it’s been shown to reduce the risk of suicide and suicide attempts by 80%). (Of course lithium isn’t for everyone.) If you find yourself in a depression unexpectedly, get it treated as soon as possible for the best chance of recovery. If you find yourself in a treatment-resistant depressive episode, learn about other coping techniques (like through dialectical behavior therapy) and know when to call in help. Manage that risk.
Another factor known to increase the risk of suicide dramatically is anxiety. In a study out of Florida, 92% of people who attempted suicide suffered from severe anxiety right before the attempt and 80% suffered from panic attacks. If you’re a person who suffers from anxiety (especially panic attacks) you are at an increased risk of suicide. Don’t skip over that important symptom when you talk to your doctor. Make sure you get it treated. If you need to, get a medication you can take as needed so that you have a backup if the anxiety gets out of control. Manage that risk.
(Oh, most of the suicides in the Unites States are firearm suicides. If you really want to decrease your risk of suicide, get rid of your guns.)
Can You Die from Bipolar Disorder?
So yes, I think you can die from bipolar disorder and it’s absolutely essential that we recognize that fact but it’s also important to realize that we don’t have to. We can decrease the risk of a suicide attempt by getting proper treatment and by knowing when to call for additional help. Because bipolar disorder may cause death in some cases, but it doesn’t have to in your case. (And yes, ideally, it would be in no one’s case.)