Facts & Stats

Depression vs. Bipolar Disorder

Antidepressants can be ineffective or even worsen symptoms in people with bipolar disorder if they are not used appropriately. That’s why getting a correct diagnosis is so important.
  • Two different conditions
  • Depressive symptoms vs manic symptoms
  • About bipolar episodes
  • When signs are missed
  • Who is at risk

Two different conditions

Major depressive disorder–what people commonly call “depression”–and bipolar disorder do have some symptoms in common. However, they are two different conditions that require different treatments.

In general, major depressive disorder involves overwhelming feelings of sadness, worthlessness and hopelessness. Bipolar disorder involves episodes of depression but also episodes of mania–symptoms of which can include excessive energy, extreme irritability or extremely reckless behavior. (People with depression do not experience manic episodes.)

About bipolar episodes

Bipolar disorder causes both depressive episodes and manic episodes at different times during the illness. A common misperception is that bipolar mood changes are usually quick and drastic. In reality, the shift from one extreme to the other is often quite gradual. And an episode–either depressive or manic–can last for days, weeks, months or even years.

Moreover, people with bipolar disorder are not always depressed or manic; they can go for long stretches of time with no signs or symptoms. The typical person with untreated bipolar disorder has an average of four episodes per year.

When signs are missed

Sadly, some people are diagnosed and treated for major depressive disorder when they really have bipolar disorder. It is easy to understand how misdiagnosis can occur. Some individuals (especially if they are unaware of bipolar disorder) may not recognize their manic symptoms and therefore don’t report them to their doctor. They may seek a doctor’s help only when they are immersed in a depressive episode.

People may experience depression as their very first episode, and they will not have a manic episode until some time in the future.

An incorrect diagnosis can lead to inappropriate treatment. In fact, antidepressant medications can bring about a manic episode in someone who really has bipolar disorder.

Awareness about bipolar disorder is the first step to recognizing possible signs. There are excellent treatments for both depression and bipolar disorder. The key is to get a correct diagnosis.

Who is at risk for bipolar disorder?

More than three percent of US adults have bipolar disorder. The illness affects men and women equally and is found in all races and ethnic groups. People with a family history of either bipolar disorder or depression are at increased risk for bipolar disorder. It is very important to tell your doctor about any family members with a history of mental illness.

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