Frequently Asked Questions


What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as "manic-depressive illness," is a mental illness that causes dramatic mood swings—from "high" feelings of extreme euphoria or irritability (mania) to deep despair (depression). These periods of mania or depression change a person's energy level, thought process, and behavior, and can last for hours, weeks, or even months.

How common is bipolar disorder?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects more than 2 million American adults—just over 1% of the population. This illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnic group, or socioeconomic background.

How is bipolar disorder treated?
Bipolar disorder is best treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy). Typically medications include: anticonvulsants, antidepressants, atypical antipsychotics, and thyroid medications. Finding the right medication and staying on it is critical to treating the illness.

Is bipolar disorder hereditary?
Yes. The National Institute of Mental Health says that more than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the illness or with clinical, or "unipolar," depression.

Does bipolar disorder affect children?
Yes. The Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation estimates that at least 750,000 American children and teens have bipolar disorder, but most are undiagnosed. Many times, children with bipolar disorder are given a misdiagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What are the main differences between bipolar disorder and depression?
Unlike people with clinical, or "unipolar," depression, most people with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood swings between the "high" (manic) and "low" (depressive) symptoms of the illness. Bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed as depression because people tell their doctors only about the depression and do not mention their manic symptoms.

What causes bipolar disorder?
Researchers don't know exactly what causes bipolar disorder, though they have identified genes that appear to be related to the disease. In some people, the disease is hereditary. But in others, it appears for no apparent reason.

What should you do if you think someone you care about has bipolar disorder?
Early diagnosis and treatment is key to helping someone with bipolar disorder manage the illness and avoid more serious problems. If you think that someone you care about may be bipolar, you should encourage this person to talk with a doctor.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Each phase of bipolar disorder—mania and depression—has its own set of symptoms. The main feature of mania is extreme happiness (euphoria) and/or extreme irritability along with several related symptoms. Depression includes feelings of sadness or numbness along with a loss of interest or pleasure in things you usually enjoy. People with bipolar disorder do not always experience manic and depressive symptoms equally.

If someone who is bipolar starts feeling better, can that person stop taking medication?
No. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Even though people with the condition can experience long periods of feeling normal, the disorder will not actually go away. Staying on medication over the long haul is critical. Without it, symptoms will reappear and the illness will get worse.