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Zeta-Jones may help dispel stigma of bipolar disorder

Oscar-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones suffers from bipolar disorder, and checked herself into a mental health facility earlier this month, her publicist has confirmed.

The news may be shocking to fans who associate the actress and wife of Michael Douglas with her image of polished glamour. But bipolar disorder – which used to be called manic depression – can take many different forms, psychiatrist Gail Saltz told TODAY.

"It can look like a very high-functioning person who is just super 'up,' " Saltz said.

Zeta-Jones is diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, which is less severe than bipolar I. People with her condition swing between major depression and what’s called hypomania, which can include intense irritability, sleeplessness, relentless optimism or grandiose elation.

Zeta-Jones’s publicist, CeCe Yorke, blamed stress for the actress’s recent hospital stay. In the past year, her husband was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer; he’s also been battling a lawsuit from his ex-wife seeking half of his recent movie earnings. Zeta-Jones and Douglas have two children, ages 7 and 10.

Catherine Zeta-Jones treated for bipolar disorder

Stress can indeed be a trigger for bipolar episodes, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical editor, told TODAY. And a brief stay in a hospital would not be uncommon, either to bring a manic episode under control, or to tune-up medications for more effective treatment, Snyderman and Saltz noted. Bipolar disorder can usually be controlled with a combination of medication and therapy. Lithium is one of the most common treatments.

Researchers aren’t quite sure what causes bipolar disorder -- a combination of genetic and environmental factors seem to come into play. They do know the disorder is associated with an imbalance in the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Bipolar disorder affects about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, around 6 million people. Mental-health advocates hope Zeta-Jones’s public struggle will help dispel some of the myths and fears about mental illness.

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"There is a ridiculous stigma in this country about this," Snyderman said. "We have to get over it. People get sick, our job as doctors is to get them well."

Saltz applauded Zeta-Jones for announcing that she has bipolar disorder after the National Enquirer reported that she had checked in to a psychiatric hospital.

"I think it’s tremendously brave of her to come forward and I’m delighted that she’s doing that," Saltz said. "There are many people getting a new diagnosis, and we want them to know they have every hope, if they get treatment, of having wonderfully productive lives."

Yorke, Zeta-Jones’s publicist, said the 41-year-old actress is "feeling great and looking forward to starting work this week on her two upcoming films."


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