What is Bipolar?

How Common Is Bipolar Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 2.8 percent of U.S. adults have had bipolar disorder in the last year.  It affects men and women equally. (1) According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average age of onset is 25, though it can occur in teenagers and, less commonly, in children. (2) More than 80 percent of all cases of the disorder are classified as severe, according to the NIMH.

What Is the Difference Between Bipolar Disorder and Manic Depression?

You may have heard the term “manic depression” used to describe a mental health disorder with similar symptoms as bipolar disorder. In fact, bipolar disorder was officially known as manic depression until the 1980s.  At that time, mental health professionals decided to change the name of the illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the guide that mental health professionals use to assist in diagnosis — because they felt the term “bipolar disorder” better described the condition and its symptoms. It’s also been argued that the older term carries a stigma in popular culture and that both “manic” and “depression” are now used to describe everyday feelings and emotions.  As a result, bipolar disorder is now the preferred term and the one that healthcare professionals use in diagnosis.

Recognizing Bipolar Disorder Symptoms and Getting a Diagnosis

There are different types of bipolar disorder, with different corresponding symptoms:

  • Bipolar I is marked by at least one manic episode, and the vast majority of people with bipolar I also experience major depressive episodes.
  • Bipolar II is characterized by a major depressive episode as well as an episode of hypomania (which is less severe than full mania) and in-between periods of a stable mood.
  • With Cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar disorder,  less severe hypomanic and depressive episodes alternate for at least two years.
  • Hypomania:  A hypomanic episode is an emotional state characterized by a distinct period of persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood, lasting throughout at least four (4) consecutive days, according to the American Psychiatric Association (2013). The mood must be present for most of the day, nearly every day.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

A manic episode consists of at least a week of an abnormally and persistently elevated or irritable mood, with increased goal-directed activity or energy; multiple other symptoms are present most of the day each day. For an episode to be considered manic, it must cause severe impairment or hospitalization or include some psychotic features.  A hypomanic episode is similar but is not as intense or disabling and is shorter in duration, lasting at least four days. You may feel easily distracted, as though your thoughts are racing, and be excessively talkative.  You may also need less sleep.  And along with an inflated sense of self-confidence, you might engage in pleasurable but reckless, risky behaviors with negative consequences.

Manic episodes involve a distinct and observable change in mood and functioning and are severe enough to result in problems in your daily activities or to require hospitalization to prevent harm to yourself or others.  A manic episode may also trigger a break from reality (psychosis), including hallucinations or delusions.

Symptoms of a major depressive episode include a loss of interest in regular activities you normally derive pleasure in or purpose from, significant changes in weight or appetite, changes in sleep, restlessness or fatigue, feelings of emptiness and worthlessness, trouble concentrating, and thoughts of suicide. Experiencing five or more of these sustained and disruptive symptoms every day over a two-week period, with at least one of the symptoms being depressed mood, is considered a major depressive episode.

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