How are depression and bipolar different?

Theresa Nguyen, LCSW, Mental Health America

People with depression feeling overwhelmingly sad, while people with bipolar disorder feel extreme mood changes from sad to elevated or high energy (using “clinical” terms, this means they experience depression and mania). 

Both terms describe mental health problems that people can experience.

Finding a correct diagnosis takes time and requires asking lots of questions, taking a good history, and ruling out other things that can look like mental illnesses that aren’t mental illnesses.

It is easier to diagnose depression and harder to diagnose bipolar disorder. People who have bipolar disorder can experience long periods of depression and then when they experience elevated mood – it’s hard to tell if the change in mood is the depression improving or something else. 

Experiencing positive moods and recovery from depression is different from mania in one important way.  Generally, when someone experiences mania, the elevated mood, increased energy, or hyperactivity also causes problems for the person.  Some of the risky behaviors that go along with mania include shopping sprees, increase in risky pleasurable like unsafe sex or gambling, periods of no sleep, and sometimes changes in bizarre behaviors and thinking.

If a person experiences at least one episode of mania in their life, it is an indication that they might have bipolar disorder.

If you think you have bipolar disorder, we recommend you talk to a mental health professional and ask for a full evaluation. A mental health provider should be able to explain their diagnostic impression and give you education about what to keep an eye on going forward.

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