Richard Dreyfuss Talks About Bipolar Disease

Academy-award winning actor Richard Dreyfuss says he had a happy childhood.

A VERY HAPPY childhood: ” I just thought I was really happy and everything that was bad I turned to good.”

It was only at the age of 19 when he was diagnosed a having bipolar disorder, that he realized that he had spent much of his childhood in a manic state.

Dreyfuss, as part of the Today show’s “No Shave November” focus on men’s health , spoke to Matt Lauer about living with bipolar disease. When asked whether people around him thought he was acting normally prior to his diagnosis, Dreyfuss replied:

” Most of the time, yes. But every once in awhile when I was talking I would find myself getting up and talking louder and faster and louder and faster until my friends would say ‘Okay, okay. Let’s get the big circus cables and throw them around his ankles and pull him gently back to earth’.”

Getting the diagnosis was, in some ways,  “freeing” for Dreyfuss: “It took away all of my guilt because I found out that it wasn’t my behavior, it was something I was born with. So I didn’t feel shame or guilt…it’s just part of me.”

Dreyfuss, known for his screen roles in Jaws, The Goodbye Girl (for which he won the Oscar) and Mr. Holland’s Opus first spoke openly about his bipolar disease in 2006, when he was part of a documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive . He is currently working with the Hope for Depression Research Foundation to promote additional research into the disorder.

Mostly, he wants society to stop thinking of bipolar disease as a stigma:

“Stigma is silly; stigma is stupid; stigma is what other people think about you,” he said. “I, first of all, don’t know anyone who’s normal. Everybody’s got something, and I come from Hollywood so no one even argues the point. ‘Stigma’ is a word that should be kicked away — and ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ — because it’s a condition.”

What is mania?

Mania should be looked at as part of the spectrum within bipolar disorders. People with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called “mood episodes.” An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, a mood episode includes symptoms of both mania and depression. This is called a mixed state. People with bipolar disorder also may be explosive and irritable during a mood episode.

Extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep, and behavior go along with these changes in mood. It is possible for someone with bipolar disorder to experience a long-lasting period of unstable moods rather than discrete episodes of depression or mania.

A person may be having an episode of bipolar disorder if he or she has a number of manic or depressive symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least one or two weeks. Sometimes symptoms are so severe that the person cannot function normally at work, school, or home.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder are described below.

Symptoms of mania or a manic episode include: Symptoms of depression or a depressive episode include:
Mood Changes

  • A long period of feeling “high,” or an overly happy or outgoing mood
  • Extremely irritable mood, agitation, feeling “jumpy” or “wired.”

Behavioral Changes

  • Talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Increasing goal-directed activities, such as taking on new projects
  • Being restless
  • Sleeping little
  • Having an unrealistic belief in one’s abilities
  • Behaving impulsively and taking part in a lot of pleasurable,
    high-risk behaviors, such as spending sprees, impulsive sex, and impulsive business investments.
Mood Changes

  • A long period of feeling worried or empty
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex.

Behavioral Changes

  • Feeling tired or “slowed down”
  • Having problems concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Being restless or irritable
  • Changing eating, sleeping, or other habits
  • Thinking of death or suicide, or attempting suicid

In addition to mania and depression, bipolar disorder can cause a range of moods, as shown on the scale.

One side of the scale includes severe depression, moderate depression, and mild low mood. Moderate depression may cause less extreme symptoms, and mild low mood is called dysthymia when it is chronic or long-term. In the middle of the scale is normal or balanced mood.

At the other end of the scale are hypomania and severe mania. Some people with bipolar disorder experience hypomania. During hypomanic episodes, a person may have increased energy and activity levels that are not as severe as typical mania, or he or she may have episodes that last less than a week and do not require emergency care. A person having a hypomanic episode may feel very good, be highly productive, and function well. This person may not feel that anything is wrong even as family and friends recognize the mood swings as possible bipolar disorder. Without proper treatment, however, people with hypomania may develop severe mania or depression.

During a mixed state, symptoms often include agitation, trouble sleeping, major changes in appetite, and suicidal thinking. People in a mixed state may feel very sad or hopeless while feeling extremely energized.

Sometimes, a person with severe episodes of mania or depression has psychotic symptoms too, such as hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to reflect the person’s extreme mood. For example, psychotic symptoms for a person having a manic episode may include believing he or she is famous, has a lot of money, or has special powers. In the same way, a person having a depressive episode may believe he or she is ruined and penniless, or has committed a crime. As a result, people with bipolar disorder who have psychotic symptoms are sometimes wrongly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, another severe mental illness that is linked with hallucinations and delusions.

People with bipolar disorder may also have behavioral problems. They may abuse alcohol or substances, have relationship problems, or perform poorly in school or at work. At first, it’s not easy to recognize these problems as signs of a major mental illness.

For more information about bipolar disorders and their treatment, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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