The Difference between Bipolar Disorder and Depression


Bipolar disorder and depression have many similarities - and one large difference.


Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a sustained state of sadness, hopelessness and loss of interest. It is not the blues, or self-indulgence or a failure of character. It is not a feeling or a mood that one can simply "snap out of." It is an illness, a disorder of the functioning of the brain, which requires treatment. Sufferers can take medication, engage in psychotherapy or receive other forms of therapy. For those whose treatment doesn't work to fully overcome their suffering, coping techniques can be taught, with some success.

Untreated, depression can lead to loss of relationships, loss of employment or, in the extreme, loss of life.

There are several types of antidepressant medications on the market. Each acts a bit differently from the other, and it takes a skilled practitioner to know the best individual or combination of drugs for each patient.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder (previously called manic depression) is a combination mood disorder, with periods of depression alternating with periods of extreme happiness or extreme irritability (mania.) Like depression, bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that is serious and unpredictable and requires medical treatment for relief.

While a more complex disease to manage than simple depression, a variety of successful treatments are available, and those who are able to manage their bipolar disorder with medication or therapy can often go on to lead satisfying and productive lives.

There are many similarities between depression and bipolar disorder, particularly in the symptoms experienced by the patient, but there are also differences. Bipolar disorder has a more complex mix of symptoms, including restlessness, racing thoughts, impulsivity, recklessness and poor judgment. There are also periods where the mood between cycles is considered 'normal.'

Depression is the primary symptom of both disorders. However, antidepressants aren't generally used to treat bipolar disorder, because in the case of bipolar, a dose of antidepressant can trigger a manic episode. Those suffering from bipolar require a mood stabilizer and an anti-manic drug. Mood stabilizing drugs include lithium, Depakote or Lamictal.

Ongoing Treatment

While being treated for either bipolar or depression, it is important to remain under the care of a medical professional. Antidepressants often take as much as eight weeks to become fully effective. Once they have, it is not uncommon to feel that there might be another medication that could provide a better level of relief. Sometimes, it is a combination of medications that allows the patient to achieve full remission of symptoms.

Depression and bipolar disorder are both treatable chronic conditions. Relief can range from reductions of severity of symptoms to full remission. Anyone suffering the symptoms of these diseases should not hesitate to seek medical help.

Sources: and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)


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