How Common Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression or manic-depressive disorder, is a mental illness that causes people to experience extreme changes in mood and behaviors.

Patients with bipolar disorder can have periods of extremely high energy and happiness, known as manic episodes, followed by periods of extreme sadness and hopelessness, known as depressive episodes.

Without proper treatment, bipolar disorder can lead to serious complications, such as substance abuse, relationship problems, job loss, and even suicide.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are four types of bipolar disorder, distinguished by the severity and duration of manic and depressive episodes:

Bipolar I Disorder

This is the most severe type of bipolar disorder, characterized by manic episodes that last for at least seven days (or are so intense that hospitalization is necessary) and depressive episodes that last for two or more weeks.

Bipolar II Disorder

This type of bipolar disorder is characterized by less severe manic episodes (hypomania) and depressive episodes than can last several weeks.

Cyclothymic Disorder (or Cyclothymia)

This is a milder form of bipolar disorder, characterized by persistent depressive and hypomanic episodes that go on for over two years. Cyclothymia symptoms are not severe enough to be classified as either bipolar I or II disorder.

Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar Disorder

This category refers to situations where a person experiences symptoms bearing similarities to bipolar disorder but do not meet the criteria for the other types of bipolar disorder.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

The cause of bipolar disorder is not fully understood but is thought to be a combination of genetic and biological factors.


Research shows that certain genes or gene variations can make a person more vulnerable to developing bipolar disorder. This explains why bipolar disorder seems to run in families.

Biological Factors

Biological factors, such as changes in brain structure, chemistry, and functioning, may also be involved in the development of bipolar disorder. Brain imaging studies show that people with bipolar disorder have subtle changes in their brain structure, which experts believe may be related to the development of the condition.

Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Several factors have been linked to an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder, including:

Family history: Having a parent or close relative with bipolar disorder increases your chance of developing the condition.

Extreme stress: Experiencing trauma or major stressors (such as the death of a loved one or divorce) can trigger the onset of bipolar disorder.

Substance abuse: People who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to develop bipolar disorder.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can vary depending on the type of bipolar disorder a person has and the episode they are experiencing.

Symptoms of Mania:

  • Feel overexcited or “high”
  • Increased energy and activity levels
  • Excessive talking or talking very fast
  • Racing thoughts
  • Impulsiveness and risky behavior
  • Grandiose thinking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Changes in appetite
  • Insomnia (going for long periods without sleep)

Symptoms of Depression:

  • Persistent sadness or emptiness
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Fatigue and low energy levels
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Prevalence of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a relatively common mental illness that typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood, with the average age of onset being 25 years. However, it is not uncommon for younger children to be diagnosed with the condition.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 4.4 percent of American adults struggle with bipolar disorder at some point in their lives. This translates to about 11.4 million people. Additionally, around 2.9 percent of adolescents (between 13 and 18 years old) also live with bipolar disorder.

The rate of serious impairment among adults and adolescents diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the U.S. is estimated to be over 80 percent. This makes the condition one of the leading causes of disability in the country.

The Bottom Line

Bipolar disorder is a potentially life-threatening mental illness that requires professional treatment. If you think you may have bipolar disorder, seek help from a qualified mental health expert. With proper diagnosis and treatment, most people with bipolar disorder can manage their symptoms and lead productive lives.

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