Bipolar Disorder vs. Depression | Understanding the Difference


Bipolar disorder and depression are both serious mental health conditions. But while they share similar characteristics, they’re two very separate illnesses. Unless you are aware of the specific ways in which they differ, it can be easy to mistake one for the other – and getting the wrong diagnosis can be catastrophic.

Let’s take a closer look at the distinct symptoms of each illness to gain a better understanding of how to differentiate between them.

Recognizing depression

Everyone goes through periods when they feel sad, scared, or lonely. These are normal human experiences, and don’t necessarily indicate a serious concern. Major depressive disorder is when these feelings of sadness are exacerbated and persist for at least two weeks. In addition, they are often accompanied by several of the following symptoms:

  • Constant despair or anxiety

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

  • Being irritable and excessively pessimistic

  • Lethargy and fatigue

  • Poor concentration or decision-making abilities

  • Sleep difficulties, including insomnia or chronic oversleeping

  • Changes in appetite

  • Weight fluctuations

  • Suicidal thoughts

Recognizing bipolar disorder

People living with bipolar disorder experience depressive episodes as described above. However, they also experience episodes of mania, where instead of feeling very low, they feel very “high.” these dramatic shifts in mood can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months at a time. People with major depressive disorder do not experience these manic episodes at all. 

Manic episodes are characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Having excessive energy

  • Feeling like you don’t need a lot of sleep

  • An inflated sense of self-esteem

  • Extreme multi-tasking

  • Rapid, scattered talking

  • Being easily distracted

  • Racing thoughts

  • Irritability and agitation

  • Taking risks that are potentially self-destructive

Some people experience both depressive and manic episodes simultaneously, combining high energy with feelings of severe hopelessness. These are known as “episodes with mixed features.”

The importance of an accurate diagnosis

According to the national institute of mental health, people are more likely to seek professional help when they’re feeling depressed than when they are experiencing mania. Without a full understanding of a patient’s medical history, it is often possible to misdiagnose bipolar disorder as depression. As a result, it can take some time to obtain a proper diagnosis. But being properly diagnosed is the first step on the road to recovery – because with the right diagnosis, you can get the right treatment.

Getting the right treatment

Depression and bipolar disorder are both treatable. Medications such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, or antidepressants are often very effective in helping to control the major symptoms of these illnesses, but it sometimes takes a while to find one that works. Psychotherapy is also extremely important in providing support, guidance, and education to those living with depression or bipolar disorder. With the right combination of treatments, life for those living with these mental health conditions can improve dramatically.

Alvarado Parkway Institute treats bipolar disorder and depression

If you suspect you or a loved one has bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, Alvarado Parkway Institute can help. For over 35 years, we’ve provided both inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services to the San Diego area. Our experienced medical and psychological staff knows how to identify the signs and symptoms of both these illnesses. With our expertise and “culture of caring,” we can help you obtain the correct diagnosis and identify the right bipolar or depression treatment so you can get your life back.

Your illness does not define you. Recovery is possible. Call our 24-hour crisis line at (619) 667-6125 and start treatment today.