What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, (formerly Manic-Depression), is a condition involving significant, intense mood swings between the opposite poles of low and high mood. Low mood periods are called depressive episodes, high mood periods are called manic episodes. These periods often last days to months before swinging to the opposite pole, often with periods of normal mood between.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder involves swings between periods of depression and mania, each with their own (often opposite) set of symptoms listed below.


  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Persistence of sad mood or feeling "empty"
  • Excessive crying
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Loss of energy and increased fatigue
  • Poor self-care and hygiene
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Poor concentration, memory and indecisiveness
  • Restlessness and/or anxiety
  • Abuse of substances
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • In severe cases, thoughts of death or suicide


  • Greatly increased energy and/or restlessness
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts
  • Rapid speech that is hard to interrupt
  • Poor concentration, memory and indecisiveness
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Restlessness and/or anxiety
  • Excessive feeling of well being (euphoria)
  • Unrealistic or grandiose belief in own abilities
  • Reckless, impulsive behavior (i.e. spending sprees, out of character sexual behaviors)
  • Poor judgment
  • Abuse of substances
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Delusions and/or paranoia
  • In severe cases, thoughts of death or suicide

The depressed and manic phases alternate with one another but typically last days to months before switching. Between episodes, people often people have periods of normal mood which may last days to years. Mania with fewer of the symptoms above may be called "hypomania", and might be diagnosed as "Bipolar Type II." Less commonly, symptoms of depression and mania occur simultaneously in a "mixed episode."

Facts About Bipolar Disorder

  • Bipolar affects approximately two million people in the United States.
  • Men and women are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.
  • Approximately half of the people affected with Bipolar began experiencing symptoms before the age of 25; therefore, it is important for college students to be aware of bipolar disorder.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

There are many theories regarding the cause of bipolar disorder. It is likely a combination of biological and psychosocial factors.


Neurotransmitters: Much of the research suggests there is an imbalance of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that facilitate information passing between nerve cells in the brain. Scientists are unclear exactly how these neurotransmitters impact the development of bipolar disorder. However, medications that allow an increase or decrease in specific neurotransmitters help to reduce bipolar symptoms.

Genetics: Twin and adoption studies indicate there is a strong genetic component to bipolar disorder. More than two-thirds of people with Bipolar have at least one close relative diagnosed with either bipolar disorder or depression.


Although biological factors clearly play a role, mood episodes have often been noted to follow stressfull life events such as change (moving to college) or loss (death of loved ones, ending of relationships).


A combination of medication and psychotherapy is often most effective in managing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Medication: Although there is no "cure" for bipolar disorder, medications can significantly reduce and manage symptoms and mood swings. People may continue to have residual symptoms, despite optimal medication treatment; however, their quality of life is frequently better. Psychiatrists tend to use a combination of mood stabilizers and anti-depressant medications to prevent clients from rapidly shifting from one episode to another.

Therapy: Psychotherapy can help the individual with bipolar disorder to stabilize daily routines, deal effectively with stress, be vigilant of encroaching symptoms, and to develop effective methods of communicating regarding their symptoms and behaviors.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder can often lead to damaged relationships, difficulty at work or school, and even suicide. People who are left untreated will continue to experience numerous shifts in mood. However, bipolar disorder can be treated and people can lead full and productive lives.

Given the serious disruptions and stressful family situation arising from episodes, family members may benefit from education regarding the disorder. Family and friends may learn strategies to help cope with the episodes and ways to be active in the treatment (i.e. recognizing the onset of episodes). Treatment for bipolar disorder is most effective when it is continuous and long-term.