Bipolar disorder is a condition where people experience extreme moods. It was previously known as 'manic depression'.
People with bipolar disorder experience periods or 'episodes' of:
- extreme lows, or depression - where they feel very low and lethargic
- extreme highs, or mania - where they feel very high and overactive (less severe mania is known as 'hypomania')
There are 2 main types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar disorder I - where people are more likely to experience mania for longer periods of time, as well as depressive episodes and sometimes psychotic symptoms. This is the more severe form of bipolar disorder
- Bipolar disorder II - people generally have shorter, less severe episodes of mania (hypomania) and depressive episodes. In between, they may have periods where their mood is relatively normal
There are also people who experience 'mixed episodes' where they can feel some of the signs and symptoms of both depression and mania.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder depend on which mood the person is experiencing. Unlike simple mood swings, each extreme episode can last for several weeks or longer, and some people may not experience a 'normal' mood very often.
The depression phase of bipolar disorder is often diagnosed first. You may initially be diagnosed with clinical depression before having a manic episode later (sometimes years later), after which you may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
During an episode of depression, you may have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, which can potentially lead to thoughts of suicide.
If you're feeling suicidal or having severe depressive symptoms, contact your doctor, or the local mental health emergency services as soon as possible.
If you can't or don't want to contact these people, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. You can call them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
During a manic phase of bipolar disorder, you may feel very happy and have lots of ambitious plans and ideas. You may spend large amounts of money on things that you cannot afford and would not normally want. Not feeling like eating or sleeping, talking quickly and becoming annoyed easily are also common characteristics of the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
During the manic phase, you may feel very creative and view mania as a positive experience. However, during the manic phase of bipolar disorder, you may also have symptoms of psychosis (where you see or hear things that are not there or become convinced of things that are not true).
Where to get help
If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you'd like to find out more, or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:
- Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) – online help
- Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) – call 13 11 14 or chat online
- Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) – call 1300 659 467
- SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) – call 1800 18 7263
- beyondblue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) – call 1300 22 4636 or chat online
You can also visit Head to Health, an online gateway funded by the Australian Government that can help you find free and low-cost, trusted phone and online mental health resources, including information about bipolar and related disorders.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: July 2018