Bipolar disorder symptoms, causes and treatment

Everyone experiences mood swings from time to time. But if extreme changes in mood are affecting your day-to-day life, it's important to get help. In this guide, we explain how to know if you have bipolar disorder, what the symptoms are and where to get help.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a long-term mental health condition that affects around 1 in 50 Australians. People living with bipolar disorder tend to experience extreme mood swings. This includes extreme high moods called mania and extreme depressive or low moods. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression.

Bipolar disorder usually develops during the teenage years or early adulthood, but it may develop later in life too. It's not known what causes bipolar disorder, although genetic and environmental factors may play a role.

Bipolar disorder symptoms can affect how a person feels, thinks and behaves. For many people, mood episodes can have a large impact on day-to-day life. Extreme highs and severe depression can cause challenges with relationships, self-care, work and social life. If mood changes are affecting how you function in everyday life, it's important to get help.

Types of bipolar

There are several different types of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar type 1 disorder

People with bipolar I disorder typically experience:

  • Manic episodes that last a long time (weeks or months)
  • Depressive episodes

They may also experience psychotic symptoms such as seeing things that aren't really there or believing things that aren't logical.

Bipolar type 2 disorder

People with bipolar II disorder typically experience:

  • Major depressive episodes
  • Hypomanic episodes (similar to a manic episodes, but less severe)

Cyclothymic disorder

People with cyclothymic disorder experience unpredictable changes in mood that occur frequently. This may include episodes of mania and depression. However, episodes tend to be shorter and less extreme than for bipolar I and II disorder.

How to know if you have bipolar disorder

The only way to get a bipolar diagnosis is by speaking with a qualified mental health professional.

The first step is usually talking to your GP or family doctor. They may ask you questions about your symptoms and mental health. They may run some tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

Your GP can't give you a bipolar disorder diagnosis, but they may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a formal diagnosis. Your mental health professional can help you with creating a treatment plan and learning tools for coping. They can also put you in touch with services that might help.

Bipolar disorder symptoms

Bipolar disorder symptoms can be severe, affecting everyday life such as work, relationships, physical health and social life.

Depressive symptoms

  • Feeling sad, low or hopeless
  • Low energy
  • No motivation
  • Loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory
  • Feelings of self-hate or worthlessness
  • Lack of appetite or eating too much
  • Sleeping a lot or finding it hard to sleep
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviours

Mania symptoms

  • Feeling very happy or elated
  • Feeling very energetic
  • Talking quickly
  • Racing thoughts
  • Having lots of exciting new ideas
  • Not sleeping
  • Not eating
  • Feeling irritated or agitated easily
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Making rash or risky decisions
  • Making big decisions without thinking through the consequences
  • Doing things you wouldn't normally do, such as gambling, spending a lot of money or consuming a lot of drugs and alcohol.

Hypomania symptoms

Hypomania has similar symptoms to mania, but less severe.

Psychotic symptoms

People with bipolar disorder may experience psychotic symptoms during manic and depressive episodes, such as:

  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't there)
  • Delusions (believing things that are irrational to others)

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional. During the assessment, they may ask about your symptoms, how severe they are and how long they last for. They may also ask about your family history of mental illness. You're more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder if a family member is too.

It can sometimes take a long time for bipolar disorder to be diagnosed correctly. That's because the diagnosis is done through talking and questions, not through tests. What's more, bipolar symptoms may be experienced by people living with other mental health conditions, such as major depression or psychosis.

How is bipolar treated?

There are many effective treatments that can help you cope with bipolar symptoms, manage triggers and stay on top of your health. A mental health professional will work with you to find the combination of treatments that is right for you.

Treatments for bipolar disorder include:

  • Psychological treatments – talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy can help you understand the way your mind and body works, and develop ways to cope.
  • Medication – your doctor may prescribe medication such as mood stabilisers, antipsychotics or antidepressants.
  • Peer support – support groups and mentors can provide information, emotional support and social connection to help you live and thrive with bipolar disorder.

When should you get help?

If you have experienced an episode of mania, hypomania or depression, it's recommended you seek a professional assessment. Talking to your GP is a good place to start.

It's important to get help if mood swings are affecting your day-to-day life. A mental health professional can help you access tools and treatments to cope better.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours, get help immediately.

  • Call 000
  • Call Lifeline 13 11 14

Support for living with bipolar disorder

There are many supports and services out there to help you manage your health and overcome any challenges you might be facing. These include:

  • Mental health helplines – talk with a counsellor over the phone or online.
  • Support groups – connect with other people who have similar experiences. Ask your GP about support groups in your area.
  • Employment support – government funded programs such as Disability Employment Services help find jobs for people with an injury, illness or disability, including bipolar disorder. Speak to APM about how we can help you find meaningful employment and thrive in the workplace.

Read our other guides on living and working with bipolar disorder: