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In this lesson, we will explore the difference between bipolar and unipolar depression and the symptoms of each.

Concrete examples of each type of depression are provided for better understanding of these disorders.

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General Info on Depression

Both unipolar and bipolar depression are sets of symptoms which indicate certain mental health diagnoses. For example, unipolar depression is a set of symptoms someone with a major depressive episode is experiencing, which suggests a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Conversely, someone with bipolar depression is likely experiencing both a major depressive episode and a manic episode, suggesting a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.This lesson will explain the differences between unipolar and bipolar depression by reviewing major depressive episodes and manic episodes with some real life examples.

Unipolar Depression

Josh has been depressed for the last six months. His depression is so severe that he feels depressed all day long almost every day.

Although he used to enjoy playing in a community soccer league, he doesn’t find it fun anymore. In fact, he has dropped out of the league and can barely muster enough energy to get out of bed. He feels exhausted all the time despite sleeping 13 hours a night.

He’s lost several pounds because he doesn’t have an appetite. He almost feels as if his mind is in a fog, and he feels lethargic and sluggish. He cries when he is alone because he feels like his life is worthless. He’s too ashamed to tell anyone, but he sometimes hopes he goes to sleep and does not wake up.Josh is suffering from unipolar depression. Unipolar depression is more formally referred to as a major depressive episode in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM. The DSM is the guide that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders.

Just like physical disorders, mental health disorders are diagnosed by the symptoms you report to your provider. Someone with unipolar depression or who is experiencing a major depressive episode is experiencing at least five of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Daily depressed mood lasting most of the day
  • Loss of ability to enjoy pleasurable activities
  • Weight loss or gain that is not purposeful
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Appearing slowed down or sped up mentally or physically
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling worthless or inappropriately guilty
  • Struggles to concentrate or make decisions
  • Thinking about death or committing suicide

When you experience these symptoms over two discrete or separate periods in your life and these episodes make it difficult for you to function, you could be suffering from a major depressive disorder.

Bipolar Depression

Mitch feels like he is on top of the world! For the last few weeks he has been especially impressed with how productive he has been at work.

He has managed to start ten different business proposals over the last few days. However, his mind is working so quickly he can’t finish one project because he has such fantastic ideas for the next one. He’s able to work on so many projects at once because he feels so energized. This increased energy makes him feel like he barely needs to sleep. Mitch doesn’t understand why his boss is angry with him for not completing his proposals, because Mitch knows once he completes them all he will bring in millions of dollars for the company.

After work, Mitch has been hitting the blackjack tables because he’s convinced he can read the dealer’s mannerisms and can count all the cards. He’s certain he can win back the $10,000 he lost last night at the same table. He’s feeling great in comparison to a few weeks ago when he was so depressed he couldn’t get out of bed.

Mitch is a perfect example of someone experiencing bipolar depression. Bipolar depression involves not only the previously mentioned major depressive episode but also symptoms of a manic episode. The two can be informally described as extreme highs and extreme lows in mood.When you are experiencing the extreme highs, this is more formally diagnosed as a manic episode. A manic episode involves a period of at least one week where you feel euphoric or irritable. This period must also involve at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Not needing much sleep
  • Very talkative or feeling pressured to talk
  • Racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Excessively and obsessively productive
  • Being involved in risky pleasurable activities (gambling, sexual encounters, spending sprees)

Although there are several types and levels of severity of bipolar disorder, simply put, if you experience both depressive and manic episodes a diagnosis of bipolar disorder may be appropriate.

Lesson Summary

Unipolar depression and bipolar depression are two informal ways to describe major depressive episodes and the combination of major depressive and manic episodes.

These are diagnosed in the DSM, a clinician’s guide to diagnosing mental health disorders. Unipolar depression involves several depressive symptoms (extremely low mood), while bipolar depression involves several depressive and also manic symptoms (alternating between periods of extremely low mood with extremely euphoric/irritable mood). Unipolar depression often results in a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, or when you experience the unipolar symptoms over two discrete or separate periods in your life and these episodes make it difficult for you to function; while bipolar depression often results in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which is when you experience both depressive and manic episodes. A manic episode involves a period of at least one week where you feel euphoric or irritable.

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