What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on October 03, 2022

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive disorder or manic depression, is a serious mental illness. It's a disorder that can lead to risky behavior, damaged relationships and careers, and even suicidal tendencies if it's not treated.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme changes in mood, from mania to depression. Between these mood episodes, a person with bipolar disorder may experience normal moods.

"Manic" describes an increasingly restless, energetic, talkative, reckless, powerful, euphoric period. Lavish spending sprees or impulsive risky sex can occur. Then, at some point, this high-flying mood can spiral into something darker -- irritation, confusion, anger, feeling trapped.

"Depression" describes the opposite mood -- sadness, crying, sense of worthlessness, loss of energy, loss of pleasure, sleep problems.

But because the pattern of highs and lows varies for each person, bipolar disorder is a complex disorder to diagnose. For some people, mania or depression can last for weeks or months (or rarely, even a year or more). For other people, bipolar disorder takes the form of frequent and more brief mood episodes.

Manic periods, experts say, can sometimes be very productive. People going through a manic period can think things are going great. The danger comes, though, when the mania grows worse. Changes can be dramatic and marked by reckless behavior, sexual promiscuity, other personal or work-related risks, and financial irresponsibility.

The depressed phases can be equally dangerous. A person may have frequent thoughts of suicide.

If you or someone you know has thoughts of death or suicide, contact a health care professional, loved one, friend, or call 911 immediately. The National Suicide Hotline is reachable 24/7 by dialing 988.

Bipolar disorder is equally difficult for the families of those affected. The condition is one of the most difficult mental illnesses for families to accept, according to some experts. When a person is sometimes very productive and then becomes unreasonable or irrational, it may seem more like bad behavior than a sickness.

If this rings true -- either for you or a loved one -- the first step in tackling the problem is to see a psychiatrist. Whether it's bipolar disorder or another mood-related problem, effective treatments are available. What's most important is that you recognize the problem and start looking for help.

Show Sources


National Institute of Mental Health: "Step-BD Womens Studies." 

Massachusetts General Hospital Bipolar Clinic & Research Program. 

MedicineNet: "Bipolar Disorder (Mania)." 

American Psychiatric Association: "Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Bipolar Disorder."

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