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You Need To Understand The Difference Between Bipolar Disorder And Depression

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Bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder (informally known as depression) are two of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. Because they are so common—both estimated to occur in up to 5% of the population—there has been a considerable amount of research searching for possible treatment options.

The signs of depression and bipolar disorder can often be quite similar to one another. Both conditions may cause an individual to experience an ongoing lack of motivation, consistently low mood, and difficulties following through with their long-term goals. Both conditions are statistically more likely to affect teens and young adults than other age demographics. However, despite the many things that depression and bipolar disorder have in common, there are still quite a few defining characteristics that make each condition unique.

In order to make sure that your teen is getting the proper care and treatment they deserve, it will be important to get an official diagnosis from a licensed physician. Whether your teen eventually visits a residential treatment program or receives a less intensive form of therapy, a proper diagnosis will be necessary in order to achieve the most optimal results.

In this article, we will discuss the most important differences between bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder (MDD). We will also discuss some of the similarities that may cause these conditions to be falsely conflated, as well as some of the top treatment options available. By making an effort to understand why life may be difficult for your teenager, you are already taking an important step towards helping them live their best life.

What Is The Difference Between Bipolar Disorder And Depression?

The term “bipolar” is a combination of the Latin prefix “bi”, meaning two, and the term “polar”, meaning (at least in this case) the extreme end of a spectrum. In other words, an individual suffering from bipolar disorder will experience emotional states taking place on opposite ends of the “emotional spectrum.”

Individuals who are suffering from major depressive disorder will experience depressive episodes that can last for moments, days and even weeks on end. During a depressive episode, the individual who is suffering will experience a consistent low mood, a generally negative outlook on life, and a continued lack of motivation.

Depression is frequently characterized by chemical and biological imbalances, meaning that even if your teen wants to complete ordinary tasks like going to school, making new friends, planning for the future, etc, it will be physically much more difficult for them to do so. Because of this, the first thing that any parent of a depressed teenager should try to do is develop a lasting sense of empathy. But additionally, it will also be crucial to connect your teen with the resources they need to recover.

Bipolar disorder is often referred to as “manic depression” due to the fact that it presents many of the same symptoms of MDD, but also presents symptoms from the other end of the emotional spectrum as well (mania). Individuals who are experiencing bipolar disorder will often experience depressive episodes that may last for long periods of time. They will also experience manic episodes, too.

During a “manic episode” an individual may exhibit feelings of grandiosity, unreasonable ambitions, paranoia, reckless decision making, and difficulty sleeping. In many cases, symptoms of mania will exhibit the “polar” opposite of symptoms of depression. An individual who experiences bipolar disorder may cycle between constantly sleeping and staying awake for days, constantly eating and going days without food, and feeling incredibly ambitious and unable to get out of bed—all within a relatively short timeframe.

Individuals who cycle between depression and mania on a more than daily basis may be suffering from “rapid cycle depression”. Because bipolar disorder produces such a wide range of emotions and behaviors, developing a personalized treatment plan will often be more difficult than developing a plan intended to treat depression alone.

What Do Bipolar Disorder And Depression Have In Common?

As implied, the main characteristic that bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder have in common is that the individuals who are suffering from both conditions will experience depressive episodes on a regular basis. It is also possible for some individuals to only experience occasional manic episodes, which will disqualify them from receiving either diagnosis.

While individuals who are suffering from bipolar may appear to “come out” of their depressive episodes with greater ease, that does not mean the condition is necessarily easier to deal with. Instances of mania can have lasting consequences, some of which are very difficult to reverse or undo.

In addition to having many symptoms in common, the potential causes of bipolar disorder and depression will often significantly overlap:

  • Genetics and family history
  • Bullying, abuse, and other forms of trauma
  • Tragic events such as the loss of a loved one
  • Substance abuse disorders

Substance abuse may not always be the direct cause of a mental health condition, but it will exacerbate most mental health conditions, including both bipolar disorder and depression. In order to address the complex relationship between these conditions and other mental health issues, many top adolescent residential treatment centers for depression and bipolar will engage in a comprehensive practice known as dual diagnosis.

Is It Possible For Depression To Change Into Bipolar Disorder?

Conditions such as cancer and diabetes are frequently referred to as “binary” conditions. While both of these conditions have varying degrees of intensity, a physician will be able to definitively tell you that you either have the disease or you do not. Bipolar disorder and depression, on the other hand, are often referred to as “spectrum” conditions. There is no clear line where a person can be deemed definitively depressed or bipolar; instead, the existence of these conditions take place upon a complicated spectrum, where the lines can be quite arbitrary.

Because bipolar disorder and depression exist along a spectrum, it is quite possible for one condition to eventually “evolve” into another. An individual may initially be diagnosed with having a major depressive disorder, but once they begin experiencing manic episodes, it may be time for a new diagnosis. Similarly, it is also possible to initially be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and eventually have that diagnosis “reduced” to depression once the manic episodes have subsided.

What Are Some Of The Top Treatments For Bipolar Disorder And Depression?

Because bipolar disorder and depression are both conditions existing upon a spectrum, there will be a wide variety of different treatment options available. There are an ample amount of medications designed to treat both conditions (some medications may be able to treat both). For individuals who are in need of more intensive forms of treatment, receiving a customized treatment plan at a depression rehab may be necessary.

  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Neurofeedback
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (and its many derivatives)
  • Group Therapy
  • Experiential Therapies

These are just a few of the treatment options that are well within your reach. If your teen has never received any type of professional treatment in the past, it may be best, to begin with, an individual therapy session and work your way up from there. Regardless, receiving an accurate diagnosis will be absolutely critical.


Bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder are both very common in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The main difference between these conditions is that individuals suffering from bipolar disorder will experience depressive episodes in addition to occasional manic episodes. By making an effort to understand these essential differences, you can help connect your teen with the mental health treatment plan they need.

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