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  • Writer's pictureAshlee Swartbooi

What is the Difference Between Major Depression and Bipolar Depression?

When it comes to mental illness, it can be hard to know which disorder someone is struggling with since there are similarities that overlap between them. Today we are discussing the difference between Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Depression.

Bipolar Depression

Bipolar Depression is often called manic depression because of the fact that there are “manic highs of euphoria” followed by lows of depression. Someone with bipolar may feel super happy and excited about life for a period of time and then crash into all-time lows of depression.

There are two types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II. People with bipolar I have intense manic episodes that affect their everyday life and make it hard to keep a job. The manic phase in those with bipolar II, however, is not as intense and people can still go about their daily routines and responsibilities.

Once a manic phase starts, someone may think that because they are feeling so happy and motivated they do not need to take their medications anymore. This is not a safe idea because it just ends up making the mania and depression worse over time.

If someone is in a more extreme phase of mania, they can lose sense of judgment and become unaware of the trouble they are causing. It is not uncommon for someone in a manic episode to spend money that they do not have, to get in trouble with the law, to have multiple sexual partners in a short period of time, to make a lot of poor decisions that are not thought through, and to not listen to friends or family members who are trying to help.

"Bipolar refers to the opposite ends, or poles, of the emotional spectrum -- the highs (mania) and the lows (depression). You might be severely depressed for a period of hours, days, weeks, or even months before entering a manic period. The mania could range from several days to two months or longer."

In a show I am watching, a character is in the middle of a manic episode and decides he is going to take his friend’s baby on a drive and ends up driving for 10 straight hours without any stops for food or diaper changes. He ends up realizing he has no money and decides to leave the baby in the car while he goes to try to get some money. He ends up getting arrested for leaving the baby in the car and when the police try to arrest him he grabs the baby and runs away yelling “they are trying to steal my baby!”

I think this depiction of a manic episode was accurate in that the character did not understand what they were doing was wrong. The character thought he was just taking the baby on a fun drive but in reality, he was putting the baby in danger by not feeding it or changing it, and leaving it in a hot car.

These are common symptoms when someone is in a manic phase:

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Less need for sleep

  • Not feeling tired even though you are not sleeping

  • Fast speech and racing thoughts

  • Abuse of drugs

  • Having trouble focusing

  • High energy

  • Overly Happy mood

  • Restlessness

  • Extreme irritability

  • Unaware of the reality that is going on

It is important to know that a diagnosis of bipolar depression may take some time since it requires at least one manic episode for diagnosis. “A bipolar I diagnosis requires a manic episode that lasts at least seven days of manic symptoms so severe that hospital care is needed with depressive episodes that last at least two weeks.”

The symptoms of the depressive side of bipolar is the same as major depression and are shared below in the next section.

Esposito says, “with bipolar, medication is necessary to even out the mood changes.” An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and talk therapy.

Lithium is a common drug that is used to help people with bipolar depression. There is always help and treatment for those with bipolar depression. No one should feel like there is no hope for them.

Major Depression

Major depression disorder (also called unipolar depression) is characterized by long periods of sadness without the manic phases of bipolar depression. This is the depression that lasts even after the traumatic or disappointing events of life. Everyone experiences sadness and disappointment, but those with depression live with that sadness for long periods of time.

If anyone has five or more of the following symptoms persist for at least two weeks, then it is indicated that the person has more than just ordinary sadness:

  • Changes in appetite, weight loss, or weight gain that is not related to diet

  • Decrease in energy

  • Increased tiredness

  • Sad and/or anxious mood

  • Feelings of emptiness

  • Loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed

  • Persistent thoughts of death or suicide

  • Oversleeping or difficulty sleeping

  • Feeling guilty, hopeless, worthless, and/or helpless

  • Having difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

  • Mood swings and irritability

  • Pacing, hand-wringing, or other purposeless physical activity

  • Slowed speech or movements

  • Digestive problems, headaches, cramps, aches, and pains that do not go away with treatment

Major depression is usually treated with medications and psychotherapy. Some people get to the point where they do not need medication to help them cope because therapy, when needed, is enough to keep them out of deep sadness.

If you have a feeling that someone you know is struggling with mental health, do not stand to the side and say nothing. People who are depressed are usually feeling like there is no purpose to get out of bed and do anything anymore. You reaching out and asking them how they are doing reminds them that they are not alone and that someone cares.

Depression is very common which is why it is so important to know the signs and understand how you can help so that you can make a positive difference.


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