What Is Depression?
Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.
Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.
There are several forms of depressive disorders.
Major depression — severe symptoms that interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. An episode can occur only once in a person’s lifetime, but more often, a person has several episodes.
Persistent depressive disorder — depressed mood that lasts for at least 2 years. A person diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder may have episodes of major depression along with periods of less severe symptoms, but symptoms must last for 2 years.
Some forms of depression are slightly different, or they may develop under unique circumstances. They include:
- Psychotic depression, which occurs when a person has severe depression plus some form of psychosis, such as having disturbing false beliefs or a break with reality (delusions), or hearing or seeing upsetting things that others cannot hear or see (hallucinations).
- Postpartum depression, which is much more serious than the “baby blues” that many women experience after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but nearly half of those with SAD do not get better with light therapy alone. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or in combination with light therapy.
Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is not as common as major depression or persistent depressive disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes — from extreme highs (e.g., mania) to extreme lows (e.g., depression).
Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain involved in mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear different. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred. They also cannot be used to diagnose depression.
Some types of depression tend to run in families. However, depression can occur in people without family histories of depression too. Scientists are studying certain genes that may make some people more prone to depression. Some genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of several genes acting together with environmental or other factors. In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode. Other depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger.
Signs & Symptoms
“It was really hard to get out of bed in the morning. I just wanted to hide under the covers and not talk to anyone. I didn’t feel much like eating and I lost a lot of weight. Nothing seemed fun anymore. I was tired all the time, and I wasn’t sleeping well at night. But I knew I had to keep going because I’ve got kids and a job. It just felt so impossible, like nothing was going to change or get better.”
People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating, or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
Who Is At Risk?
Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Each year about 6.7% of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder. Women are 70 % more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime. Non-Hispanic blacks are 40% less likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience depression during their lifetime. The average age of onset is 32 years old. Additionally, 3.3% of 13 to 18 year olds have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.
“I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor.”
Depression, even the most severe cases, can be effectively treated. The earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is.
The first step to getting appropriate treatment is to visit a doctor or mental health specialist. Certain medications, and some medical conditions such as viruses or a thyroid disorder, can cause the same symptoms as depression. A doctor can rule out these possibilities by doing a physical exam, interview, and lab tests. If the doctor can find no medical condition that may be causing the depression, the next step is a psychological evaluation.
The doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, who should discuss with you any family history of depression or other mental disorder, and get a complete history of your symptoms. You should discuss when your symptoms started, how long they have lasted, how severe they are, and whether they have occurred before and if so, how they were treated. The mental health professional may also ask if you are using alcohol or drugs, and if you are thinking about death or suicide.
Other illnesses may come on before depression, cause it, or be a consequence of it. But depression and other illnesses interact differently in different people. In any case, co-occurring illnesses need to be diagnosed and treated.
Anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder, often accompany depression. PTSD can occur after a person experiences a terrifying event or ordeal, such as a violent assault, a natural disaster, an accident, terrorism or military combat. People experiencing PTSD are especially prone to having co-existing depression.
Alcohol and other substance abuse or dependence may also co-exist with depression. Research shows that mood disorders and substance abuse commonly occur together.
Depression also may occur with other serious medical illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. People who have depression along with another medical illness tend to have more severe symptoms of both depression and the medical illness, more difficulty adapting to their medical condition, and more medical costs than those who do not have co-existing depression. Treating the depression can also help improve the outcome of treating the co-occurring illness.
Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated in several ways. The most common treatments are medication and psychotherapy.
Antidepressants primarily work on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine. Other antidepressants work on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Scientists have found that these particular chemicals are involved in regulating mood, but they are unsure of the exact ways that they work. The latest information on medications for treating depression is available on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website .
Popular newer antidepressants
Some of the newest and most popular antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa) are some of the most commonly prescribed SSRIs for depression. Most are available in generic versions. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are similar to SSRIs and include venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
SSRIs and SNRIs tend to have fewer side effects than older antidepressants, but they sometimes produce headaches, nausea, jitters, or insomnia when people first start to take them. These symptoms tend to fade with time. Some people also experience sexual problems with SSRIs or SNRIs, which may be helped by adjusting the dosage or switching to another medication.
One popular antidepressant that works on dopamine is bupropion (Wellbutrin). Bupropion tends to have similar side effects as SSRIs and SNRIs, but it is less likely to cause sexual side effects. However, it can increase a person’s risk for seizures.
Tricyclics are older antidepressants. Tricyclics are powerful, but they are not used as much today because their potential side effects are more serious. They may affect the heart in people with heart conditions. They sometimes cause dizziness, especially in older adults. They also may cause drowsiness, dry mouth, and weight gain. These side effects can usually be corrected by changing the dosage or switching to another medication. However, tricyclics may be especially dangerous if taken in overdose. Tricyclics include imipramine and nortriptyline.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are the oldest class of antidepressant medications. They can be especially effective in cases of “atypical” depression, such as when a person experiences increased appetite and the need for more sleep rather than decreased appetite and sleep. They also may help with anxious feelings or panic and other specific symptoms.
However, people who take MAOIs must avoid certain foods and beverages (including cheese and red wine) that contain a substance called tyramine. Certain medications, including some types of birth control pills, prescription pain relievers, cold and allergy medications, and herbal supplements, also should be avoided while taking an MAOI. These substances can interact with MAOIs to cause dangerous increases in blood pressure. The development of a new MAOI skin patch may help reduce these risks. If you are taking an MAOI, your doctor should give you a complete list of foods, medicines, and substances to avoid.
MAOIs can also react with SSRIs to produce a serious condition called “serotonin syndrome,” which can cause confusion, hallucinations, increased sweating, muscle stiffness, seizures, changes in blood pressure or heart rhythm, and other potentially life-threatening conditions. MAOIs should not be taken with SSRIs.
How should I take medication?
All antidepressants must be taken for at least 4 to 6 weeks before they have a full effect. You should continue to take the medication, even if you are feeling better, to prevent the depression from returning.
Medication should be stopped only under a doctor’s supervision. Some medications need to be gradually stopped to give the body time to adjust. Although antidepressants are not habit-forming or addictive, suddenly ending an antidepressant can cause withdrawal symptoms or lead to a relapse of the depression. Some individuals, such as those with chronic or recurrent depression, may need to stay on the medication indefinitely.
In addition, if one medication does not work, you should consider trying another. NIMH-funded research has shown that people who did not get well after taking a first medication increased their chances of beating the depression after they switched to a different medication or added another medication to their existing one.
Sometimes stimulants, anti-anxiety medications, or other medications are used together with an antidepressant, especially if a person has a co-existing illness. However, neither anti-anxiety medications nor stimulants are effective against depression when taken alone, and both should be taken only under a doctor’s close supervision.
Report any unusual side effects to a doctor immediately.
FDA warning on antidepressants
Despite the relative safety and popularity of SSRIs and other antidepressants, studies have suggested that they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially adolescents and young adults. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a thorough review of published and unpublished controlled clinical trials of antidepressants that involved nearly 4,400 children and adolescents. The review revealed that 4 percent of those taking antidepressants thought about or attempted suicide (although no suicides occurred), compared to 2 percent of those receiving placebos.
This information prompted the FDA, in 2005, to adopt a “black box” warning label on all antidepressant medications to alert the public about the potential increased risk of suicidal thinking or attempts in children and adolescents taking antidepressants. In 2007, the FDA proposed that makers of all antidepressant medications extend the warning to include young adults up through age 24. A “black box” warning is the most serious type of warning on prescription drug labeling.
The warning emphasizes that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be closely monitored, especially during the initial weeks of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are worsening depression, suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as sleeplessness, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations. The warning adds that families and caregivers should also be told of the need for close monitoring and report any changes to the doctor. The latest information from the FDA can be found on their website .
Results of a comprehensive review of pediatric trials conducted between 1988 and 2006 suggested that the benefits of antidepressant medications likely outweigh their risks to children and adolescents with major depression and anxiety disorders.
What about St. John’s wort?
The extract from the herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been used for centuries in many folk and herbal remedies. Today in Europe, it is used extensively to treat mild to moderate depression. However, recent studies have found that St. John’s wort is no more effective than placebo in treating major or minor depression.
In 2000, the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory letter stating that the herb may interfere with certain medications used to treat heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers, and those used to prevent organ transplant rejection. The herb also may interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. Consult with your doctor before taking any herbal supplement.
“Now I’m seeing the specialist on a regular basis for ‘talk therapy,’ which helps me learn ways to deal with this illness in my everyday life, and I’m taking medicine for depression.”
Several types of psychotherapy — or “talk therapy” — can help people with depression.
Two main types of psychotherapies — cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) — are effective in treating depression. CBT helps people with depression restructure negative thought patterns. Doing so helps people interpret their environment and interactions with others in a positive and realistic way. It may also help you recognize things that may be contributing to the depression and help you change behaviors that may be making the depression worse. IPT helps people understand and work through troubled relationships that may cause their depression or make it worse.
For mild to moderate depression, psychotherapy may be the best option. However, for severe depression or for certain people, psychotherapy may not be enough. For example, for teens, a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the most effective approach to treating major depression and reducing the chances of it coming back. Another study looking at depression treatment among older adults found that people who responded to initial treatment of medication and IPT were less likely to have recurring depression if they continued their combination treatment for at least 2 years.
More information on psychotherapy is available on the NIMH website.
Electroconvulsive therapy and other brain stimulation therapies
For cases in which medication and / or psychotherapy does not help relieve a person’s treatment-resistant depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be useful. ECT, formerly known as “shock therapy,” once had a bad reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief for people with severe depression who have not been able to feel better with other treatments.
Before ECT begins, a patient is put under brief anesthesia and given a muscle relaxant. He or she sleeps through the treatment and does not consciously feel the electrical impulses. Within 1 hour after the treatment session, which takes only a few minutes, the patient is awake and alert.
A person typically will undergo ECT several times a week, and often will need to take an antidepressant or other medication along with the ECT treatments. Although some people will need only a few courses of ECT, others may need maintenance ECT — usually once a week at first, then gradually decreasing to monthly treatments. Ongoing NIMH-supported ECT research is aimed at developing personalized maintenance ECT schedules.
ECT may cause some side effects, including confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. Usually these side effects are short-term, but sometimes they can linger. Newer methods of administering the treatment have reduced the memory loss and other cognitive difficulties associated with ECT. Research has found that after 1 year of ECT treatments, most patients showed no adverse cognitive effects.
Other more recently introduced types of brain stimulation therapies used to treat severe depression include vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). These methods are not yet commonly used, but research has suggested that they show promise.
More information on ECT, VNS, rTMS and other brain stimulation therapies is available on the NIMH website.
How do women experience depression?
Depression is more common among women than among men. Biological, life cycle, hormonal, and psychosocial factors that women experience may be linked to women’s higher depression rate. Researchers have shown that hormones directly affect the brain chemistry that controls emotions and mood. For example, women are especially vulnerable to developing postpartum depression after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming.
Some women may also have a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD is associated with the hormonal changes that typically occur around ovulation and before menstruation begins.
During the transition into menopause, some women experience an increased risk for depression. In addition, osteoporosis — bone thinning or loss — may be associated with depression. Scientists are exploring all of these potential connections and how the cyclical rise and fall of estrogen and other hormones may affect a woman’s brain chemistry.
Finally, many women face the additional stresses of work and home responsibilities, caring for children and aging parents, abuse, poverty, and relationship strains. It is still unclear, though, why some women faced with enormous challenges develop depression, while others with similar challenges do not.
How do men experience depression?
Men often experience depression differently than women. While women with depression are more likely to have feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and excessive guilt, men are more likely to be very tired, irritable, lose interest in once-pleasurable activities, and have difficulty sleeping.
Men may be more likely than women to turn to alcohol or drugs when they are depressed. They also may become frustrated, discouraged, irritable, angry, and sometimes abusive. Some men throw themselves into their work to avoid talking about their depression with family or friends, or behave recklessly. And although more women attempt suicide, many more men die by suicide in the United States.
How do older adults experience depression?
Depression is not a normal part of aging. Studies show that most seniors feel satisfied with their lives, despite having more illnesses or physical problems. However, when older adults do have depression, it may be overlooked because seniors may show different, less obvious symptoms. They may be less likely to experience or admit to feelings of sadness or grief.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish grief from major depression. Grief after loss of a loved one is a normal reaction to the loss and generally does not require professional mental health treatment. However, grief that is complicated and lasts for a very long time following a loss may require treatment. Researchers continue to study the relationship between complicated grief and major depression.
Older adults also may have more medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, or cancer, which may cause depressive symptoms. Or they may be taking medications with side effects that contribute to depression. Some older adults may experience what doctors call vascular depression, also called arteriosclerotic depression or subcortical ischemic depression. Vascular depression may result when blood vessels become less flexible and harden over time, becoming constricted. Such hardening of vessels prevents normal blood flow to the body’s organs, including the brain. Those with vascular depression may have, or be at risk for, co-existing heart disease or stroke.
Although many people assume that the highest rates of suicide are among young people, older white males age 85 and older actually have the highest suicide rate in the United States. Many have a depressive illness that their doctors are not aware of, even though many of these suicide victims visit their doctors within 1 month of their deaths.
Most older adults with depression improve when they receive treatment with an antidepressant, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Research has shown that medication alone and combination treatment are both effective in reducing depression in older adults. Psychotherapy alone also can be effective in helping older adults stay free of depression, especially among those with minor depression. Psychotherapy is particularly useful for those who are unable or unwilling to take antidepressant medication.
How do children and teens experience depression?
Children who develop depression often continue to have episodes as they enter adulthood. Children who have depression also are more likely to have other more severe illnesses in adulthood.
A child with depression may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that a parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative and irritable, and feel misunderstood. Because these signs may be viewed as normal mood swings typical of children as they move through developmental stages, it may be difficult to accurately diagnose a young person with depression.
Before puberty, boys and girls are equally likely to develop depression. By age 15, however, girls are twice as likely as boys to have had a major depressive episode.
Depression during the teen years comes at a time of great personal change — when boys and girls are forming an identity apart from their parents, grappling with gender issues and emerging sexuality, and making independent decisions for the first time in their lives. Depression in adolescence frequently co-occurs with other disorders such as anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse. It can also lead to increased risk for suicide.
An NIMH-funded clinical trial of 439 adolescents with major depression found that a combination of medication and psychotherapy was the most effective treatment option. Other NIMH-funded researchers are developing and testing ways to prevent suicide in children and adolescents.
Childhood depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, especially if left untreated.
How can I help a loved one who is depressed?
If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.
To help your friend or relative
- Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
- Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
- Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
- Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
- Invite your loved one out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
- Provide assistance in getting to the doctor’s appointments.
- Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
How can I help myself if I am depressed?
If you have depression, you may feel exhausted, helpless, and hopeless. It may be extremely difficult to take any action to help yourself. But as you begin to recognize your depression and begin treatment, you will start to feel better.
To Help Yourself
- Do not wait too long to get evaluated or treated. There is research showing the longer one waits, the greater the impairment can be down the road. Try to see a professional as soon as possible.
- Try to be active and exercise. Go to a movie, a ballgame, or another event or activity that you once enjoyed.
- Set realistic goals for yourself.
- Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities and do what you can as you can.
- Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative. Try not to isolate yourself, and let others help you.
- Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately. Do not expect to suddenly “snap out of” your depression. Often during treatment for depression, sleep and appetite will begin to improve before your depressed mood lifts.
- Postpone important decisions, such as getting married or divorced or changing jobs, until you feel better. Discuss decisions with others who know you well and have a more objective view of your situation.
- Remember that positive thinking will replace negative thoughts as your depression responds to treatment.
- Continue to educate yourself about depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.
SAD is sometimes known as “winter depression” because the symptoms are more apparent and tend to be more severe during the winter.
The symptoms often begin in the autumn as the days start getting shorter. They’re typically most severe during December, January and February.
SAD often improves and disappears in the spring and summer, although it may return each autumn and winter in a repetitive pattern.
Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms of SAD can include:
- a persistent low mood
- a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
- sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
- craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
For some people, these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day activities.
When to see your GP
You should consider seeing your GP if you think you might have SAD and you’re struggling to cope.
Your GP can carry out an assessment to check your mental health. They may ask you about your mood, lifestyle, eating habits and sleeping patterns, plus any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behavior.
What causes SAD?
The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days.
The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the:
- production of melatonin – melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels
- production of serotonin – serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
- body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD
It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.
Treatments for SAD
A range of treatments are available for SAD. Your GP will recommend the most suitable treatment programme for you.
The main treatments are:
- lifestyle measures, including getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly and managing your stress levels
- light therapy, where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight
- talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or counseling
- antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder can be severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.
Bipolar disorder often appears in the late teens or early adult years. At least half of all cases start before age 25.1 Some people have their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.
Bipolar disorder is not easy to spot when it starts. Some people suffer for years before they are properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout your life.
What are the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder?
People with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called “mood episodes.” Each mood episode represents a drastic change from a person's usual mood and behavior. An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, a mood episode includes symptoms of both mania and depression. This is called a mixed state. People with bipolar disorder also may be explosive and irritable during a mood episode. Extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep, and behavior go along with these changes in mood.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder are described below.
|Symptoms of mania or a manic episode include:||Symptoms of depression or a depressive episode include:|
Bipolar disorder can be present even when mood swings are less extreme. For example, some people with bipolar disorder experience hypomania, a less severe form of mania. During a hypomanic episode, you may feel very good, be highly productive, and function well. You may not feel that anything is wrong, but family and friends may recognize the mood swings as possible bipolar disorder. Without proper treatment, people with hypomania may develop severe mania or depression.
Bipolar disorder may also be present in a mixed state, in which you might experience both mania and depression at the same time. During a mixed state, you might feel very agitated, have trouble sleeping, experience major changes in appetite, and have suicidal thoughts. People in a mixed state may feel very sad or hopeless while at the same time feel extremely energized.
Sometimes, a person with severe episodes of mania or depression has psychotic symptoms too, such as hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to reflect the person’s extreme mood. For example, if you are having psychotic symptoms during a manic episode, you may believe you are a famous person, have a lot of money, or have special powers. If you are having psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode, you may believe you are ruined and penniless, or you have committed a crime. As a result, people with bipolar disorder who have psychotic symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.
People with bipolar disorder may also abuse alcohol or substances, have relationship problems, or perform poorly in school or at work. It may be difficult to recognize these problems as signs of a major mental illness.
How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?
Bipolar disorder usually lasts a lifetime. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of symptoms, but some people may have lingering symptoms.
Doctors diagnose bipolar disorder using guidelines from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the symptoms must be a major change from your normal mood or behavior. There are four basic types of bipolar disorder:
- 1. Bipolar I Disorder — defined by manic or mixed episodes that last at least seven days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks.
- 2. Bipolar II Disorder — defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes.
- 3. Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (BP-NOS) — diagnosed when symptoms of the illness exist but do not meet diagnostic criteria for either bipolar I or II. However, the symptoms are clearly out of the person’s normal range of behavior.
- 4. Cyclothymic Disorder, or Cyclothymia — a mild form of bipolar disorder. People with cyclothymia have episodes of hypomania as well as mild depression for at least 2 years. However, the symptoms do not meet the diagnostic requirements for any other type of bipolar disorder.
A severe form of the disorder is called Rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder. Rapid cycling occurs when a person has four or more episodes of major depression, mania, hypomania, or mixed states, all within a year.2 Rapid cycling seems to be more common in people who have their first bipolar episode at a younger age. One study found that people with rapid cycling had their first episode about 4 years earlier — during the mid to late teen years — than people without rapid cycling bipolar disorder.3 Rapid cycling affects more women than men.4 Rapid cycling can come and go.
When getting a diagnosis, a doctor or health care provider should conduct a physical examination, an interview, and lab tests. Currently, bipolar disorder cannot be identified through a blood test or a brain scan, but these tests can help rule out other factors that may contribute to mood problems, such as a stroke, brain tumor, or thyroid condition. If the problems are not caused by other illnesses, your health care provider may conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, who is experienced in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
The doctor or mental health professional should discuss with you any family history of bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses and get a complete history of symptoms. The doctor or mental health professional should also talk to your close relatives or spouse about your symptoms and family medical history.
People with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they are depressed than when experiencing mania or hypomania.5 Therefore, a careful medical history is needed to assure that bipolar disorder is not mistakenly diagnosed as major depression. Unlike people with bipolar disorder, people who have depression only (also called unipolar depression) do not experience mania.
Bipolar disorder can worsen if left undiagnosed and untreated. Episodes may become more frequent or more severe over time without treatment.6 Also, delays in getting the correct diagnosis and treatment can contribute to personal, social, and work-related problems.7 Proper diagnosis and treatment help people with bipolar disorder lead healthy and productive lives. In most cases, treatment can help reduce the frequency and severity of episodes.
What illnesses often co-exist with bipolar disorder?
Substance abuse is very common among people with bipolar disorder, but the reasons for this link are unclear.8 Some people with bipolar disorder may try to treat their symptoms with alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse can also trigger or prolong bipolar symptoms, and the behavioral problems associated with mania can lead to drinking too much.
Anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social phobia, also can co-occur with bipolar disorder.9,10,11 Bipolar disorder can co-occur with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well, which has some symptoms that overlap with bipolar disorder, such as restlessness and being easily distracted. However, the symptoms of ADHD are persistent, whereas those of bipolar disorder are episodic.
In addition, people with bipolar disorder are at higher risk for thyroid disease, migraine headaches, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other physical illnesses.12,13 These illnesses may cause symptoms of mania or depression, or they may be caused by some medications used to treat bipolar disorder.
What are the risk factors for bipolar disorder?
Scientists are studying the possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most agree that there is no single cause. Rather, many factors likely act together to produce the illness or increase risk for developing it.
Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Some research has suggested that people with certain genes are more likely to develop bipolar disorder than others.14 Children with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder are much more likely to develop the illness, compared with children who do not have a family history of bipolar disorder.15 However, most children with a family history of bipolar disorder will not develop the illness.
Technological advances are improving genetic research on bipolar disorder. One example is the launch of the Bipolar Disorder Phenome Database, funded in part by NIMH. Using the database, scientists will be able to link visible signs of the disorder with the genes that may influence them.16
Scientists are also studying illnesses with similar symptoms such as depression and schizophrenia to identify genetic differences that may increase a person’s risk for developing bipolar disorder.17,18,19 Finding these genetic “hotspots” may also help explain how environmental factors can increase a person’s risk.
But genes are not the only risk factor for bipolar disorder. Studies of identical twins have shown that the twin of a person with bipolar illness does not always develop the disorder, despite the fact that identical twins share all of the same genes. Research suggests that factors besides genes are also at work. It is likely that many different genes and environmental factors are involved. However, scientists do not yet fully understand how these factors interact to cause bipolar disorder.
Brain structure and functioning
Brain-imaging tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), allow researchers to take pictures of the living brain at work. These tools help scientists study the brain’s structure and activity.
Some imaging studies show how the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of healthy people or people with other mental disorders. For example, one study using MRI found that the pattern of brain development in children with bipolar disorder was similar to that in children with “multi-dimensional impairment,” a disorder that causes symptoms that overlap somewhat with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.20 This suggests that the pattern of brain development in the two conditions may be associated with the risk for unstable moods.
Another MRI study found that the brain’s prefrontal cortex in adults with bipolar disorder tends to be smaller and function less well compared to adults who don’t have bipolar disorder.21,22 The prefrontal cortex is a brain structure involved in “executive” functions such as solving problems and making decisions. This structure and its connections to other parts of the brain mature during adolescence, suggesting that abnormal development of this brain circuit may account for why the disorder tends to emerge during a person’s teen years.23 Pinpointing brain changes in youth may help us detect illness early or offer targets for early intervention.
The connections between brain regions are important for shaping and coordinating functions such as forming memories, learning, and emotions, but scientists know little about how different parts of the human brain connect. Learning more about these connections, along with information gained from genetic studies, helps scientists better understand bipolar disorder. Scientists are working towards being able to predict which types of treatment will work most effectively.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated effectively over the long-term. Proper treatment helps many people with bipolar disorder — even those with the most severe forms of the illness — gain better control of their mood swings and related symptoms.24,25,26 But because it is a lifelong illness, long-term, continuous treatment is needed to control symptoms.27
However, even with proper treatment, mood changes can occur. In the NIMH-funded Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD) study — the largest treatment study ever conducted for bipolar disorder — almost half of those who recovered still had lingering symptoms. Having another mental disorder in addition to bipolar disorder increased one’s chances for a relapse.28 See STEP-BD for more information.
Treatment is more effective if you work closely with a doctor and talk openly about your concerns and choices. An effective maintenance treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
Different types of medications can help control symptoms of bipolar disorder. Not everyone responds to medications in the same way. You may need to try several different medications before finding ones that work best for you.
Keeping a daily life chart that makes note of your daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events can help you and your doctor track and treat your illness most effectively. If your symptoms change or if side effects become intolerable, your doctor may switch or add medications.
The types of medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder include mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants. For the most up-to-date information on medication use and their side effects, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Mood stabilizers are usually the first choice to treat bipolar disorder. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for years. Lithium (also known as Eskalith or Lithobid) is an effective mood stabilizer. It was the first mood stabilizer approved by the FDA in the 1970s for treating both manic and depressive episodes.
Anticonvulsants are also used as mood stabilizers. They were originally developed to treat seizures, but they also help control moods. Anticonvulsants used as mood stabilizers include:
- Valproic acid or divalproex sodium (Depakote), approved by the FDA in 1995 for treating mania. It is a popular alternative to lithium. However, young women taking valproic acid face special precautions. See section below, Should young women take valproic acid?
- Lamotrigine (Lamictal), FDA-approved for maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder. It is often effective in treating depressive symptoms.
- Other anticonvulsant medications, including gabapentin (Neurontin), topiramate (Topamax), and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal).
Valproic acid, lamotrigine, and other anticonvulsant medications have an FDA warning. The warning states that their use may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. People taking anticonvulsant medications for bipolar or other illnesses should be monitored closely for new or worsening symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts or behavior, or any unusual changes in mood or behavior. If you take any of these medications, do not make any changes to your dosage without talking to your doctor.
What are the side effects of mood stabilizers?
Lithium can cause side effects such as:
- Dry mouth
- Bloating or indigestion
- Unusual discomfort to cold temperatures
- Joint or muscle pain
- Brittle nails or hair.
When taking lithium, your doctor should check the levels of lithium in your blood regularly, and will monitor your kidney and thyroid function as well. Lithium treatment may cause low thyroid levels in some people.29 Low thyroid function, called hypothyroidism, has been associated with rapid cycling in some people with bipolar disorder, especially women.
Because too much or too little thyroid hormone can lead to mood and energy changes, it is important that your doctor check your thyroid levels carefully. You may need to take thyroid medication, in addition to medications for bipolar disorder, to keep thyroid levels balanced.
Common side effects of other mood stabilizing medications include:
- Mood swings
- Stuffed or runny nose, or other cold-like symptoms.
These medications may also be linked with rare but serious side effects. Talk with your doctor or a pharmacist to make sure you understand signs of serious side effects for the medications you’re taking. If extremely bothersome or unusual side effects occur, tell your doctor as soon as possible.
Should young women take valproic acid?
Valproic acid may increase levels of testosterone (a male hormone) in teenage girls. It could lead to a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in women who begin taking the medication before age 20.30,31 PCOS can cause obesity, excess body hair, an irregular menstrual cycle, and other serious symptoms. Most of these symptoms will improve after stopping treatment with valproic acid.32 Young girls and women taking valproic acid should be monitored carefully by a doctor.
Atypical antipsychotics are sometimes used to treat symptoms of bipolar disorder. Often, these medications are taken with other medications, such as antidepressants. Atypical antipsychotics include:
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa), which when given with an antidepressant medication, may help relieve symptoms of severe mania or psychosis.33 Olanzapine can be taken as a pill or a shot. The shot is often used for urgent treatment of agitation associated with a manic or mixed episode. Olanzapine can be used as maintenance treatment as well, even when psychotic symptoms are not currently present.
- Aripiprazole (Abilify), which is used to treat manic or mixed episodes. Aripiprazole is also used for maintenance treatment. Like olanzapine, aripiprazole can be taken as a pill or a shot. The shot is often used for urgent treatment of severe symptoms.
- Quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal) and ziprasidone (Geodon) also are prescribed to relieve the symptoms of manic episodes.
What are the side effects of atypical antipsychotics?
If you are taking antipsychotics, you should not drive until you have adjusted to your medication. Side effects of many antipsychotics include:
- Dizziness when changing positions
- Blurred vision
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Skin rashes
- Menstrual problems for women.
Atypical antipsychotic medications can cause major weight gain and changes in your metabolism. This may increase your risk of getting diabetes and high cholesterol.34 Your doctor should monitor your weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels regularly while you are taking these medications.
In rare cases, long-term use of atypical antipsychotic drugs may lead to a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). The condition causes uncontrollable muscle movements, frequently around the mouth. TD can range from mild to severe. Some people with TD recover partially or fully after they stop taking the drug, but others do not.
Antidepressants are sometimes used to treat symptoms of depression in bipolar disorder. Fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and bupropion (Wellbutrin) are examples of antidepressants that may be prescribed to treat symptoms of bipolar depression.
However, taking only an antidepressant can increase your risk of switching to mania or hypomania, or of developing rapid-cycling symptoms.35 To prevent this switch, doctors usually require you to take a mood-stabilizing medication at the same time as an antidepressant.
What are the side effects of antidepressants?
Antidepressants can cause:
- Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach)
- Agitation (feeling jittery)
- Sexual problems, which can affect both men and women. These include reduced sex drive and problems having and enjoying sex.
Report any concerns about side effects to your doctor right away. You may need a change in the dose or a different medication. You should not stop taking a medication without talking to your doctor first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to “rebound” or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. Other uncomfortable or potentially dangerous withdrawal effects are also possible.
Some antidepressants are more likely to cause certain side effects than other types. Your doctor or pharmacist can answer questions about these medications. Any unusual reactions or side effects should be reported to a doctor immediately.
FDA Warning on Antidepressants
Antidepressants are safe and popular, but some studies have suggested that they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially in adolescents and young adults. The FDA warning says that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are depression that gets worse, suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as trouble sleeping, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations. For the latest information, see the FDA website .
Should women who are pregnant or may become pregnant take medication for bipolar disorder?
Women with bipolar disorder who are pregnant or may become pregnant face special challenges. Mood stabilizing medications can harm a developing fetus or nursing infant.36 But stopping medications, either suddenly or gradually, greatly increases the risk that bipolar symptoms will recur during pregnancy.37
Lithium is generally the preferred mood-stabilizing medication for pregnant women with bipolar disorder.38, 39 However, lithium can lead to heart problems in the fetus. In addition, women need to know that most bipolar medications are passed on through breast milk.40 The FDA has also issued warnings about the potential risks associated with the use of antipsychotic medications during pregnancy. If you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of all available treatments.
When done in combination with medication, psychotherapy can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. It can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Some psychotherapy treatments used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people with bipolar disorder learn to change harmful or negative thought patterns and behaviors.
- Family-focused therapy, which involves family members. It helps enhance family coping strategies, such as recognizing new episodes early and helping their loved one. This therapy also improves communication among family members, as well as problem-solving.
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, which helps people with bipolar disorder improve their relationships with others and manage their daily routines. Regular daily routines and sleep schedules may help protect against manic episodes.
- Psychoeducation, which teaches people with bipolar disorder about the illness and its treatment. Psychoeducation can help you recognize signs of an impending mood swing so you can seek treatment early, before a full-blown episode occurs. Usually done in a group, psychoeducation may also be helpful for family members and caregivers.
In a STEP-BD study on psychotherapies, researchers compared people in two groups. The first group was treated with collaborative care (three sessions of psychoeducation over 6 weeks). The second group was treated with medication and intensive psychotherapy (30 sessions over 9 months of CBT, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, or family-focused therapy). Researchers found that the second group had fewer relapses, lower hospitalization rates, and were better able to stick with their treatment plans.41 They were also more likely to get well faster and stay well longer. Overall, more than half of the study participants recovered over the course of 1 year.
A licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor typically provides psychotherapy. He or she should work with your psychiatrist to track your progress. The number, frequency, and type of sessions should be based on your individual treatment needs. As with medication, following the doctor’s instructions for any psychotherapy will provide the greatest benefit.
Visit the NIMH website for more information on psychotherapy.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) — For cases in which medication and psychotherapy do not work, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be useful. ECT, formerly known as “shock therapy,” once had a bad reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief for people with severe bipolar disorder who have not been able to recover with other treatments.
Before ECT is administered, a patient takes a muscle relaxant and is put under brief anesthesia. He or she does not consciously feel the electrical impulse administered in ECT. On average, ECT treatments last from 30–90 seconds. People who have ECT usually recover after 5–15 minutes and are able to go home the same day.42
Sometimes ECT is used for bipolar symptoms when other medical conditions, including pregnancy, make the use of medications too risky. ECT is a highly effective treatment for severely depressive, manic, or mixed episodes. But it is generally not used as a first-line treatment.
ECT may cause some short-term side effects, including confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. People with bipolar disorder should discuss possible benefits and risks of ECT with an experienced doctor.43
Sleep Medications — People with bipolar disorder who have trouble sleeping usually sleep better after getting treatment for bipolar disorder.44 However, if sleeplessness does not improve, your doctor may suggest a change in medications. If the problems still continue, your doctor may prescribe sedatives or other sleep medications.
Herbal Supplements — In general, not much research has been conducted on herbal or natural supplements and how they may affect bipolar disorder. An herb called St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), often marketed as a natural antidepressant, may cause a switch to mania in some people with bipolar disorder.45 St. John’s wort can also make other medications less effective, including some antidepressant and anticonvulsant medications.46 Scientists are also researching omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found in fish oil) to measure their usefulness for long-term treatment of bipolar disorder.47 Study results have been mixed.48
Be sure to tell your doctor about all prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements you are taking. Certain medications and supplements taken together may cause unwanted or dangerous effects.
What research is NIMH doing to improve treatments for bipolar disorder?
Scientists are working to identify new targets for improving current medications or developing new treatments for bipolar disorder.49,50 In addition, NIMH researchers have made promising advances toward finding fast-acting medication treatment. In a small study of people with bipolar disorder whose symptoms had not responded to prior treatments, a single dose of ketamine — an anesthetic medication — significantly reduced symptoms of depression in as little as 40 minutes.51 These effects lasted about a week on average.
Ketamine itself is unlikely to become widely available as a treatment because it can cause serious side effects at high doses, such as hallucinations. However, scientists are working to understand how the drug works on the brain in an effort to develop treatments with fewer side effects and that act similarly to ketamine. Such medications could also be used for longer term management of symptoms.
In addition, NIMH is working to better understand bipolar disorder and other mental disorders by spearheading the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Project, which is an ongoing effort to map our current understanding of the brain circuitry that is involved in behavioral and cognitive functioning. By essentially breaking down mental disorders into their component pieces — RDoC aims to add to the knowledge we have gained from more traditional research approaches that focus solely on understanding mental disorders based on symptoms. The hope is that by changing the way we approach mental disorders, RDoC will help us open the door to new targets of preventive and treatment interventions.
How can I help a friend or relative who has bipolar disorder?
If you know someone who has bipolar disorder, it affects you too. The first and most important thing you can do is help him or her get the right diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make the appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment.
To help a friend or relative, you can:
- Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement
- Learn about bipolar disorder so you can understand what your friend or relative is experiencing
- Talk to your friend or relative and listen carefully
- Listen to feelings your friend or relative expresses and be understanding about situations that may trigger bipolar symptoms
- Invite your friend or relative out for positive distractions, such as walks, outings, and other activities
- Remind your friend or relative that, with time and treatment, he or she can get better.
Never ignore comments from your friend or relative about harming himself or herself. Always report such comments to his or her therapist or doctor.
How can caregivers find support?
Like other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder can be difficult for spouses, family members, friends, and other caregivers. Relatives and friends often have to cope with the person’s serious behavioral problems, such as wild spending sprees during mania, extreme withdrawal during depression, or poor work or school performance. These behaviors can have lasting consequences.
Caregivers usually take care of the medical needs of their loved ones. But caregivers have to deal with how this affects their own health as well. Caregivers’ stress may lead to missed work or lost free time, strained relationships with people who may not understand the situation, and physical and mental exhaustion.
It can be very hard to cope with a loved one’s bipolar symptoms. One study shows that if a caregiver is under a lot of stress, his or her loved one has more trouble following the treatment plan, which increases the chance for a major bipolar episode.52 If you are a caregiver of someone with bipolar disorder, it is important that you also make time to take care of yourself.
How can I help myself if I have bipolar disorder?
It may be very hard to take that first step to help yourself. It may take time, but you can get better with treatment.
To help yourself:
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options and progress.
- Keep a regular routine, such as going to sleep at the same time every night and eating meals at the same time every day.
- Try hard to get enough sleep.
- Stay on your medication.
- Learn about warning signs signaling a shift into depression or mania.
- Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately.
Where can I go for help?
If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. Others who can help are listed below.
- Mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or mental health counselors
- Health maintenance organizations
- Community mental health centers
- Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
- Mental health programs at universities or medical schools
- State hospital outpatient clinics
- Family services, social agencies, or clergy
- Peer support groups
- Private clinics and facilities
- Employee assistance programs
- Local medical and / or psychiatric societies.
You can also check the phone book under “mental health,” “health,” “social services,” “hotlines,” or “physicians” for phone numbers and addresses. An emergency room doctor can also provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.
See NIMH website for full list of citations: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder-in-adults/index.shtml