What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, formerly referred to as manic-depressive illness, is a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings. It is characterized by episodes of mania and depression lasting from days to months and usually beginning in late adolescence, but can begin in early childhood or as late as a person’s 40s or 50s. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria. During an episode of mania several other symptoms can occur at the same time, such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure seeking and increased risk-taking behavior. The other state of depression, produces feelings of extreme sadness, hopelessness and lack of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the same. The severity of mania and depression can vary. Bipolar disorder can cause mental suffering, problems with family, friends and co-workers, loss of job productivity, financial problem or death from reckless behavior or suicide.

Bipolar Disorder Statistics

  • Bipolar disorder affects 2.3  million Americans (1.2 percent of the population)

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  • Approximately 25 percent of individuals experience onset before age 20
  • Seven out of ten people with bipolar disorder receive one misdiagnosis
  • 30 percent of people with untreated bipolar disorder commit suicide
  • Delayed diagnosis and misdiagnosis contributes to 50 percent of bipolar individuals abusing alcohol or drugs
  • An equal number of men and women develop this illness and it is found among all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes
  • Average length of time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis is 10 years
  • Bipolar disorders accounts for approximately $7.6 billion of direct healthcare costs in the U.S.
  • Lifetime costs per individuals range from $12,000 for a person with a single manic episode to more than $600,000 for those with multiple episodes

Symptoms of mania can include:

  • Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
  • Spending sprees
  • Increased sexual drive
  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol and sleeping medications
  • Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
  • Provocative and intrusive behavior
  • Excessive irritability and aggressive behavior
  • Decreased need for sleep without experiencing fatigue
  • Grandiose delusions, inflated sense of self-importance
  • Increased talking and more rapid speech than normal
  • Racing thoughts, jumping quickly from one idea to another
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Impulsiveness, poor judgment and distractibility

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Diminished capacity for pleasure or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, failure and lack of self-worth
  • Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
  • Changes in eating, sleeping or other daily habits
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unexplained aches or pains
  • Increased feelings of worry or anxiety
  • Thoughts of death or suicide attempts
  • Sleeping too much, or can’t sleep
  • Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue

Causes of Bipolar Disorder

There is no single cause for bipolar disorder. Like all psychological disorders, bipolar disorder is a complex condition with multiple contributing factors including:

  • Genetic: Bipolar Disorder tends to run in families, so researchers believe there is a genetic predisposition for the disorder. Scientists are also exploring the presence of abnormalities on specific genes. 
  • Biological: Researchers believe that some neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, don’t function properly in individuals with bipolar disorder.
  • Environmental: Outside factors, such as stress or a major life event, may trigger a genetic predisposition or potential biological reaction. For instance, if bipolar disorder was entirely genetic, both identical twins would have the disorder. But research reveals that one twin can have bipolar, while the other does not, complicating the environment as a potential contributing cause.


While there is no cure for bipolar disorder, after accurate diagnosis, most people can be successfully treated. Medication is an essential part of treatment and may be prescribed in combination with psychotherapy. Therapy often helps the person learn ways of coping with symptoms and new ways to relate to others. Family members may also benefit from counseling, learning skills to help understand and cope with their loved one’s illness.