People living with bipolar disorder experience intense mood swings, known as manic and depressive episodes. In the grips of mania or depression, people with bipolar may struggle to go about their daily lives. Some may also feel so negatively about their symptoms that they carry a tremendous amount of guilt and shame around the behaviors they exhibit, especially if the symptoms are due to mania. It’s important to understand the differences between depression and bipolar disorder so you or someone you care about can receive the correct diagnosis and effective treatment. Let’s look at how to tell the difference between depression and bipolar disorder and when to seek professional help.
What is Depression?
It’s estimated that 16% of Americans will experience clinical depression at some point during their lives. Depression is a mood disorder — not a chemical imbalance in the brain, or a sign of weakness. Typical symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, restlessness or irritability, difficulty experiencing pleasure, difficulty focusing, and difficulty sleeping. Some people may also experience changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. For some people, depression feels like a heavy, dark fog. While others may feel sadness that is described more as a low-grade ache. In extreme cases, depression can be life-threatening.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
69 percent of people living with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed initially and more than one-third remained misdiagnosed for 10 years or more.
Bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder (MDD) because the two disorders share common symptoms. If symptoms are misdiagnosed, they are often treated with incorrect and ineffective therapies. Bipolar disorder is a brain-based disorder that causes dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and ability to function. People living with bipolar disorder experience episodes of high energy, euphoria, and irritability (“mania”) that alternate with episodes of extreme sadness and hopelessness (“depression”). Bipolar disorder affects approximately 2.6% of the U.S. population and is more common than schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder combined. It is more likely to occur in people who have a family history of the condition, which can range from mild to severe.
How to Tell if You Have Depression or Bipolar Disorder
If your symptoms seem to last longer than two weeks, you may want to seek professional help. Your doctor will likely have you fill out a self-assessment tool for bipolar called MDQ to assess bipolar disorder or the MDQ-9 to rule out depression. If you have seven or more symptoms that apply to your situation, it’s possible that you may be experiencing bipolar disorder or depression. If you have at least seven symptoms and are still experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or irritability, it’s a good idea to get help. If you have seven or more symptoms of either disorder, you should make an appointment to see a doctor or therapist. If you have seven or more symptoms of depression, you should seek treatment. Likewise, if you have seven or more symptoms of bipolar disorder, it is imperative that you seek treatment.
When to Get Help for Depression and Bipolar Disorder
When you have symptoms of either depression or bipolar disorder, the sooner you get help, the faster you will recover and the less likely you are to experience a relapse. If your symptoms are severely impacting your ability to function, seek treatment as soon as you can to manage bipolar disorder. Standard practice for people living with bipolar disorder is to see a psychiatrist for a diagnosis and medication. The psychiatrist will give you medication and treatment recommendations which will include counseling or psychotherapy and lifestyle changes.
It is important to remember that not all mood disorders are treated the same. In fact, each one requires a different approach and will require different medications. If you think you may have depression or bipolar disorder, it’s important to learn how to recognize the symptoms and get help. Educating yourself about the condition will go a long way in managing your symptoms. With proper treatment and support from friends and family, you will be able to manage your symptoms and lead the life you always wanted to.