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What’s the Difference Between Depression and Bipolar Disorder?

Grappling with a mental illness is never easy. It’s entirely too common for a person to be misdiagnosed, or to self-diagnose while lacking vital information. Being totally informed is crucial to identifying and understanding different mental conditions. Depression and bipolar disorder are among the most common disorders to be incorrectly assessed and conflated. Although there are similarities between the two, there are significant differences that are important to recognize, especially when seeking effective treatment. 




Depression is a common, serious medical illness that can negatively affect how you feel, think, and go about your daily life. It can create intense feelings of helplessness and sadness, causing you to lose interest in activities that once brought you joy. Depression (also known as Major Depressive Disorder) can lead directly to a wide variety of emotional and physical complications that affect your ability to function at home and at work.


The National Center for Biotechnology Information lists that symptoms of major depressive disorder must last for at least two weeks, during which a depressed mood state occurs for most of the day, every day. Symptoms must represent a change in a person’s previous levels of functioning for a diagnosis to be given. Other symptoms can include: 


  • Extreme feelings of sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite, including weight loss or gain
  • Insomnia
  • Physical and mental agitation
  • Increased fatigue and loss of energy
  • Excessive guilt
  • Feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide


It is estimated that depression affects one in fifteen adults in any given year, and one in six people experience it at some point in their life. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that while depression can occur at any time, individuals experience it most commonly from their late teens to mid-20s. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, as are people who have first-degree relatives with the same condition. 


Bipolar Disorder


Although bipolar disorder has numerous similarities to depression, it also includes symptoms of mania. Bipolar disorder is characterized by mood swings that fluctuate between depressive lows and manic highs. During these manic high episodes, individuals can exhibit behavior that is both abnormal and persistent, lasting at least one week. If a person shows milder signs of mania and does not have psychotic symptoms, their state is called “hypomania” or a hypomanic episode. Symptoms of mania may include:


  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Rapid or unintelligible speech
  • Unstable thought patterns
  • Reckless behavior
  • A tendency to be easily distracted
  • High level of energy and activity
  • False beliefs (delusions) or false perceptions (hallucinations)

During a depressive period, symptoms may include:

  • Prolonged sadness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feelings of irritability, anger, worry, agitation, or pessimism
  • Significant changes in appetite
  • Sleeping more or less than normal, or insomnia
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Poor concentration, indecisiveness
  • Recurring thoughts of death, self-harm, or suicide

Bipolar disorder is commonly divided into two sub-categories based on the dividing line between mania and hypomania. Bipolar I Disorder is when a patient has had at least one manic episode and at least one depressive episode. Bipolar II Disorder is when a patient has had at least one hypomanic episode and at least one period of significant depression, but has never had a full-blown manic episode. Episodes of hypomania are not as extreme as mania and are shorter in duration. Individuals with Bipolar II tend to have longer depressive episodes with shorter states of hypomania. 

Accuracy in Diagnosis

Diagnosis can be a complicated procedure that is best left to medical professionals. A mental health expert can determine a diagnosis by examining your history and symptoms. A medical diagnosis is based not only on current symptoms but on the symptoms you have experienced throughout your life.


Most people who end up being diagnosed with bipolar disorder have come to a medical professional seeking assistance for depression, rather than for their manic or hypomanic episodes. This is why it’s so important to disclose any history of manic or hypomanic symptoms when receiving care, as being prescribed the wrong antidepressant could trigger a manic episode. Because medications and other forms of treatment can lead to physical and mental complications, having a team such as a psychiatrist and a primary care physician work together with other mental health professionals is highly recommended to evaluate and address bipolar disorder, depression, and any other mental conditions that are keeping you from living the life you want to live.


Educating yourself on the differences between depression and bipolar disorder will help you avoid misdiagnosis. Although there are plenty of similarities between the two, there are significant differences that make each disorder unique. Both conditions can leave a person feeling helpless and unworthy of finding relief. The best option for those experiencing any symptoms of bipolar disorder, depression, or another mental illness is to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider immediately. When seeking help, always remember to be completely honest with your symptoms and history. With the proper help, you can start working towards lasting relief. Do not let your mental health problems consume your life any longer. At RECO Intensive, we know the importance of receiving effective, sympathetic assistance to making important internal changes that improve your life. We provide a wide range of services to help you attain your mental health goals and achieve happiness. Make your mental wellbeing a priority today. Call (561) 464-6533 to learn more.

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