Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder

An estimated 2.8% of the US population (over 5.5 million people) are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

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What Is It?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, causes dramatic shifts in a person's mood, energy, and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar experience extreme high and low moods- known as mania and depression – which differ from the typical ups-and-downs most people experience.

The Science Behind It

Scientists have not yet discovered a single cause of bipolar disorder. Currently, they believe several factors may contribute, including:

  • Genetics. The chances of developing bipolar disorder are increased if a child's parents or siblings have the disorder. But the role of genetics is not absolute: a child from a family with a history of bipolar disorder may never develop the disorder. Studies of identical twins have found that, even if one twin develops the disorder, the other may not.
  • Stress. A stressful event such as a death in the family, an illness, a difficult relationship, divorce or financial problems can trigger a manic or depressive episode. Thus, a person's handling of stress may also play a role in the development of the illness.
  • Brain structure and function. Brain scans cannot diagnose bipolar disorder, yet researchers have identified subtle differences in the average size or activation of some brain structures in people with bipolar disorder.

Warning Signs

A person with bipolar disorder may have distinct manic or depressed states but may also have extended periods,sometimes years, without symptoms. A person can also experience both extremes simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Severe bipolar episodes of mania or depression may include psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions. Usually, these psychotic symptoms mirror a person's extreme mood. People with bipolar disorder who have psychotic symptoms can be wrongly diagnosed as having schizophrenia.

  • Mania. (Periods of overly excited and extreme moods) During periods of mania, people behave impulsively, make reckless decisions and take unusual risks. People in manic states are unaware of the negative consequences of their actions. With bipolar disorder, suicide is an ever-present danger because some people become suicidal even in manic states. Learning from prior episodes what kinds of behavior signals "red flags" of manic behavior can help manage the symptoms of the illness. To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a person must have experienced at least one episode of mania or hypomania. 
  • Depression. The lows of bipolar depression are often so debilitating that people may be unable to get out of bed. Typically, people experiencing a depressive episode have difficulty falling and staying asleep, while others sleep excessively. When people are depressed, even minor decisions such as what to eat for dinner can be overwhelming. They may become obsessed with feelings of loss, personal failure, guilt or helplessness; this negative thinking can lead to thoughts of suicide.

Common Misconceptions

Bipolar is a rare condition

Bipolar disorder affects 2 million adults in the United States alone. One in five Americans has a mental health condition.

Bipolar disorder is just mood swings, which everybody has

The highs and lows of bipolar disorder are very different from common mood swings. People with bipolar disorder experience extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep that are not typical for them.

There is only one type of bipolar disorder

There are four basic types of bipolar disorder, and the experience is different per individual.

  • Bipolar I is diagnosed when a person has one or more depressive episodes and one or more manic episodes, sometimes with psychotic features such as hallucinations or delusions.
  • Bipolar II has depressive episodes as its major feature and at least one
    hypomanic episode. Hypomania is a less severe type of mania. A person with bipolar II disorder may experience either mood-congruent or
    mood-incongruent psychotic symptoms (delusions related to a depressed state vs those related to thought control, insertion, broadcasting.)
  • Cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia) is defined by numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms as well numerous periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years (1 year in children and adolescents) without meeting the severity requirements for a hypomanic episode and a depressive episode.
  • Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified does not follow a particular pattern and is defined by bipolar disorder symptoms that do not match the three categories listed above.


Bipolar disorder is treated and managed in several ways:

  • Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and family-focused therapy.
  • Medications, such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotic medications and, to a lesser extent, antidepressants.
  • Self-management strategies, like education and recognition of an episode’s early symptoms.
  • Complementary health approaches, such as aerobic exercise meditation, faith and prayer can support, but not replace, treatment.

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Medical Disclaimer: Brain Health Bootcamp aims to promote education and awareness of mental health conditions among adolescents, families, and educators. We publish material that is researched, cited, and drawn from sources reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.