Bipolar disorder, (previously known as manic depression) is a
mental health condition. It involves cycles of extreme low and
A person with bipolar disorder may cycle between feeling
euphoric and extremely energetic (‘manic’), and feeling very
low (‘depression’). The cycle of manic and depressive symptoms
is different for everyone. For some people, episodes can last
for three to six months and occur every few years. Others may
experience shorter but more frequent episodes over the course
of one year. Treatment with medication may stop the symptoms,
or make them shorter or less intense.
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. Contributing
factors may include brain chemicals, environmental factors,
physical illness and stress. Research suggests that around 80
per cent of the causes are genetic.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder generally begin in early
adulthood. For most people the disorder is a lifelong
diagnosis. However, with appropriate treatment and support:
- bipolar disorder symptoms can be well managed
- people with bipolar disorder can maintain a good quality of
It is estimated that approximately 1.3% of Australians live
with a form of bipolar disorder. One in 50 adult Australians
experience bipolar disorder each year.
Types of bipolar disorder
There are a number of different types of bipolar and related
Bipolar I disorder
People with bipolar I disorder typically experience:
- one or more manic episodes (extreme highs) lasting at least
one week, as well as
- depressive episodes, and
- psychotic episodes.
With bipolar I disorder, episodes of mania are severe enough to
interfere with day-to-day life.
Bipolar II disorder
People with bipolar II disorder typically experience both
hypomanic and depressive episodes.
A person with hypomania will experience similar symptoms to
someone with mania, but less intensely.
Hypomania associated with bipolar II lasts only a few hours or
days (rather than weeks of mania, as with bipolar I). Although
bipolar II disorder has less severe symptoms than bipolar I
disorder, it can be chronic (ongoing).
Depressive symptoms associated with bipolar II disorder are
often more frequent and longer-lasting.
Cyclothymic disorder is characterised by persistent and
unpredictable changes in mood. The highs and lows are much less
extreme than for bipolar I and II disorder, and the episodes
Some people experience ‘mixed episodes’ – where they can feel
some of the signs and symptoms of both depression and mania or
Bipolar disorder – mania
Common symptoms of mania associated with bipolar disorder
- feeling extremely euphoric (‘high’) or energetic
- going without sleep
- thinking and speaking quickly
- reckless behaviour, such as overspending
- participating in unsafe sexual activity
- grandiose, unrealistic plans.
The symptoms of hypomania are the same as those for mania, but
less severe and of shorter duration.
Bipolar disorder – depression
Common symptoms of depression associated with bipolar disorder
- withdrawal from people and activities
- feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- lack of appetite and weight loss
- feeling anxious or guilty without reason
- difficulty concentrating
- suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
Bipolar disorder – psychosis
People with bipolar disorder who are experiencing an episode of
mania may also have symptoms of psychosis,
including delusions and hallucinations.
Causes of bipolar disorder
The exact cause of bipolar disorder is not known. Contributing
factors may include:
- brain chemicals
- environmental factors
- physical illness
Research suggests that around 80 per cent of the causes are
genetic, and people can have a strong genetic predisposition to
bipolar disorder. This means that for those people, because of
the coding in their genes, certain triggers may cause symptoms
of bipolar disorder to occur. Triggers may include stressors
such as abuse, loss, or trauma. Sometimes bipolar disorder
develops without a trigger.
One theory is that the illness might be linked to the brain
chemicals (neurotransmitters) serotonin and norepinephrine.
These chemicals help regulate mood. It is thought that, for a
person with a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder, these
chemicals may easily be thrown out of balance.
While the onset of bipolar disorder may be linked to stressful
life events, it is unlikely that stress causes bipolar
disorder. People who live with bipolar disorder often find that
managing and reducing stress in their lives helps to reduce
their chance of triggering a relapse.
Treatment for bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder requires long-term treatment and management.
Treatment options may include:
- mood-stabilising medications
- antidepressant medications
- anti-psychotic medications
- psychological therapies
- hospitalisation – for appropriate treatment during acute
- education – to help people understand and manage their
condition and be more self-sufficient
- community support programs – to provide rehabilitation,
accommodation and employment support
- self-help groups for emotional support and understanding.