Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. It is a mental illness involving mood fluctuations between extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression). Some people with bipolar disorder also experience psychosis and become unable to discern what is real.

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 100,000 Australians. It typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. Bipolar disorder can be very disruptive. One in five people with bipolar disorder commit suicide. Like diabetes, this mood disorder is a long-term illness that requires careful ongoing management. On average, it takes ten years and four doctors before an accurate diagnosis is reached.

Symptoms and Causes

A manic episode involves a week or more of symptoms including:

  • Elevated/euphoric mood
  • Increased energy, activity and restlessness
  • Distractability, poor concentration and lack of sleep
  • Heightened beliefs about one's abilities
  • Poor judgement, possibly including spending sprees and provocative behaviour
  • Drug abuse, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping pills
  • Extreme irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • Denial that anything is wrong

A depressive episode involves two weeks or more of symptoms including:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, 'slowing down'
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Sleeping too much, or can't sleep
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss/gain
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Chronic pain or other persistent physical symptoms not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (suicidal ideation) or suicide attempts

Like other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder cannot yet be identified physiologically - for example, through a blood test or brain scan. Diagnosis is therefore made on the basis of symptoms, course of illness and, when available, family history.

We do, however, know that:

  • Bipolar disorder tends to run in families so there may be a genetic component - at least 50% of people with bipolar disorder have a parent with a mood disorder.
  • Environmental triggers include relationship difficulties and work pressures, especially during the early stage of the illness.


Useful Information

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