Bipolar Disorder 101: Defining Psychiatric Conditions

Defining bipolar disorder: symptoms, prevalence and treatment

A woman suffering from bipolar disorder.
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Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric disorder characterized by pathological mood swings from mania to depression. There is no clear cause for the mental disorder, although there appears to be a genetic link, and scientists are trying to understand differences in brain development, connections and activity in affected individuals. The disorder is often treated with the mood-stabilizing drug lithium, antipsychotics, antidepressants and talk therapy.

Bipolar Signs and Symptoms

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes people to have mood symptoms that can range from depression and despair to an overly excited state of mania with inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts and increased risk taking. Not all people with bipolar disorder experience this manic state, however.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder are much more severe than the normal ups and downs of daily life and can impact a person's decisions, job or school performance and personal relationships. People with bipolar disorder often benefit from a variety of treatments, including mood stabilizing drugs, antipsychotics, antidepressants as well as talk therapy (psychotherapy). Individuals with the disorder are at an increased risk of death by suicide.

Prevalence of Bipolar Disorder

The chance that any person will develop bipolar disease during the course of her lifetime is 1 percent.

About 60 percent of all people who develop bipolar disorder do so before the age of 20, but there is no data documenting the prevalence of bipolar disorder before puberty. Family environment, genetics and neurobiology are all believed to play roles in the development and onset of bipolar disease. Children who are raised in abusive or stressful home environments experience earlier onset of bipolar disorder.

Furthermore, these children often have more severe cases of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder can take on several iterations including the following:

  • Bipolar I involves severe mood swings that range from mania to depression.
  • Bipolar II involves mood swings with less severe mania but severe depression.
  • Cyclothymia disorder is a mild form of bipolar disorder, which is characterized by mood swings with less severe mania (hypomania) and less severe depression.
  • Mixed state bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes that mix both depressive and manic features. For example, a person may feel high energy, sleepless and have racing thoughts as well as experience hopelessness, sadness and suicidal thoughts.
  • People with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder experience several mood swings during a one-year period.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

The treatment of bipolar disorder is complex. Furthermore, limited research has been done concerning the long-term use of mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotic medications, which are mainly used to treat the disease.

Of note, it can be very dangerous to give somebody with bipolar disorder an antidepressant medication (SSRI) without also prescribing a mood stabilizing drug like Lithium, because the antidepressant drug may precipitate mania. Bipolar disorder can also be treated with psychotherapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and family-focused therapy. Finally, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has also been used to treat some people with bipolar disorder.


Cleveland Clinic. “Bipolar Disorder." Accessed July 2013.

U.S. National Library of Medictine. "Bipolar disorder." Updated January 2013. Accessed July 2013.

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