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Bipolar Disorder: Symptoms and Causes

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that often significantly disrupts the lives of those affected, especially when they neglect to seek proper treatment. It greatly affects your mood, emotions, and even behaviour, often to the point of regular struggle.

Whether it’s managing relationships or trying to do well at work, it can interfere with many areas of your life, especially if you’re still early in your journey of diagnosis and treatment. It’s a complex condition that not many know much about. Read on to learn more about bipolar disorder, its causes and symptoms, and how it can affect your life.

Bipolar Disorder: Overview

Previously known as manic depression, Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by dramatic mood swings, including emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). Although bipolar can be diagnosed at any age, it usually starts presenting in the late teens and early 20s.

During depressive episodes, you experience sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in most activities. You can feel euphoric, energetic, or unusually irritable when the mood shifts to mania or hypomania. These mood swings significantly impact sleep, energy levels, activity, judgment, behaviour, and clarity of thought.

The frequency of mood swings varies, with some people experiencing them rarely and others having multiple episodes per year. While some may not experience emotional symptoms between episodes, most will. Despite being a lifelong condition, proper treatment involving medications and psychotherapy can help manage mood swings and other symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder – Symptoms

Bipolar disorder encompasses a few different types of disorders, all of which must be treated a little differently. Symptoms can vary, but they often cause drastic mood changes, unpredictable behaviour, and a lot of stress. The different types of bipolar disorder include:

  • Bipolar I disorder: This is characterized by at least one manic episode, likely followed or preceded by a major depressive or hypomanic episode. The episode may trigger psychosis (a break from reality), but not always.
  • Bipolar II disorder: This is when you’ve had at least one hypomanic episode and one major depressive episode but never a manic episode.
  • Cyclothymic disorder. You’ve had several periods of hypomania symptoms and depressive periods over the course of at least two years, or one year for children and teens. The depressive symptoms in this case aren’t as severe as a true major depressive episode.
  • Others. This covers bipolar and related disorders that may be induced by alcohol or drug use or by a different medical condition like MS, stroke, or Cushings.

It’s important to note that Bipolar I and II are separate diagnoses – one is not a “milder form” of the other. Bipolar I often come with more severe manic episodes, but they are usually shorter than depressive episodes with bipolar II, for example. Although these longer episodes may not be as severe, their length alone can cause significant struggle and disruption.

Mania and Hypomania

While mania and hypomania are two different types of episodes, they share many symptoms. What makes them distinct is the severity. Mania is much more severe than hypomania, and it’s this type of episode that often causes problems at school, work, and other social situations. It can also cause a break from reality – known as psychosis – and require medical attention.

A manic or hypomanic episode will include at least three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Unusually jumpy, wired, upbeat demeanour
  • A feeling of euphoria, including an overwhelming sense of well-being and confidence
  • Increased energy and activity
  • Reduced need for sleep
  • Increasingly agitated
  • Excessively talkative
  • Easily and excessively distracted
  • Racing thoughts
  • Bad decisions, such as excessive spending or risky behaviour
Major Depressive Episode

A depressive episode includes many unpleasant symptoms that can have a significant effect on mental health and day-to-day functioning. They’re often severe and noticeable in the professional and social lives of those suffering. These episodes tend to come with trouble at work and strained relationships – especially when those around an individual are not privy to their struggle or are simply uncaring.

It”s considered a depressive episode when five or more of these symptoms appear:

  • Depressed mood. This includes feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness. In children and teens, a depressed mood is more likely to include extreme irritability.
  • Loss of interest. Things like hobbies, activities, and other fun things no longer feel fun, interesting, or appealing.
  • Significant unexplained weight loss or weight gain along with an extreme increase or decrease in appetite. In children, you may also notice a failure to gain weight according to expected growth and aging milestones.
  • Excessive sleeping or insomnia.
  • Slowed behaviour or restlessness.
  • Decreased concentration and ability to think clearly.
  • Increased indecisiveness.
  • Feeling worthless or extremely guilty for no apparent reason.
  • Suicidal thoughts, tendencies, or actions.
Other Features

While the symptoms of bipolar disorder and its various types are generally typical, bipolar I and II can also include feelings of anxious distress and melancholy in some. Although not as common as others, psychosis may appear as well.

The timing of symptoms and episodes are often categorized as either “mixed” or “rapid cycling”:

  • “Mixed” episodes contain symptoms of mania and depression simultaneously. With bipolar II, symptoms of depression tend to co-exist with hypomania rather than those of a full manic episode.
  • “Rapid cycling” is when you experience four or more of any type of episodes within 12 months.

It’s also important to note that bipolar symptoms can change with the seasons and may also appear during pregnancy.

Symptoms in Children and Early Teens

Although not as common, bipolar disorder can appear in children and early teens. Unfortunately, symptoms can be difficult to detect at this stage due to the normal ups, downs, and hormonal changes that occur as children grow. Attitude shifts, bouts of angst, and periods of rebellion are all fairly normal throughout childhood.

Many symptoms can also mimic those of a trauma response or mental health condition in younger children and teens, so you must tread carefully when digging for a diagnosis.

If a child or young teen is struggling with bipolar disorder, they can have distinct manic and major depressive episodes. However, the patterns will be different from those of adults with the same condition – their moods will shift more rapidly during episodes, for example. They may also experience a period with no mood symptoms between their episodes.

One of the most prominent signs in children and early teens is a pattern of severe and highly unusual mood swings – outside of any typical moodiness that may just be part of their personality at present.


We have yet to pinpoint an exact cause for bipolar disorder, but we do know that a few factors can contribute. Most notably:

  • Genetics. Overall, bipolar disorder is more often found in those who have a first-degree relative with the condition – such as parents or siblings. Researchers are still working on finding specific genes that may be part of the cause.
  • Biological differences. When studying the brain, those with bipolar tend to have particular physical changes. Although the significance of this is yet unknown, the information may eventually help narrow down specific causes.

Risk Factors

Although an exact cause for bipolar disorder hasn’t been found, there are various known risk factors for developing the condition and/or triggering the first episode. These include:

  • Having a parent or sibling diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
  • Experiencing highly stressful events or periods such as the death of a loved one or other major trauma.
  • Excessive use or abuse of drugs and alcohol.
  • A history of childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma.
  • Personality traits like high levels of neuroticism or extreme impulsivity can increase the risk.
  • Extremely irregular sleep patterns or sleep deprivation may trigger depressive or manic episodes.


Bipolar disorder can cause a wide variety of problems throughout your life, depending on which episodes and/or symptoms you struggle with the most. Proper treatment can help you control and manage the impact it has, but when the condition is left untreated, you’re at a much higher risk for complications.

This can include things like:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use/abuse
  • Suicidal tendencies or even attempts
  • Strained, damaged, and broken relationships with family, friends, and partners
  • Poor grades in school
  • Poor performance at work, increasing risk of job loss
  • Financial strain due to loss of income, medical expenses, etc
  • Legal issues resulting from poor decisions made during extreme episodes

Co-Occurring Conditions

It’s not uncommon for those with bipolar disorder to struggle with additional medical conditions and mental health disorders. Many of these also require treatment to properly manage, often leading to a need for specialized treatment that addresses co-occurring conditions. If not addressed properly, many of these co-occurring conditions can increase the symptoms of bipolar disorder and even make treatment less successful.

Common co-occurring conditions include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
  • Physical conditions such as thyroid problems, heart problems, obesity, or headaches
  • Alcohol and drug issues/addictions

When to see a Doctor

Although it can be difficult to identify bipolar disorder, it’s important to remember that it will not get better on its own. Symptoms may come and go, but professional treatment is required for effective long-term management.

Even though the symptoms can be extreme, those with the condition often don’t realize how much of an effect it has on them and those around them. Even if it’s not immediately apparent, the extreme ups and downs have a profound impact on both physical and mental health. Not to mention the strained relationships and concerns loved ones may feel.

Additionally, some people with bipolar disorder may like the spurts of euphoria where they feel happy, motivated, and productive. However, these always come before an emotional crash that leaves you feeling worn out and depressed. You may also find yourself dealing with the consequences of various actions that you took while not feeling entirely yourself.

This only highlights the extreme importance of getting a prompt diagnosis and proper treatment. If you notice any of the associated symptoms in yourself, your child, or another loved one, it’s crucial you seek medical attention right away. You can consult your regular doctor or any mental health professional, but it’s never too early to start investigating.

When to Get Emergency Help

While you should seek the help of a medical professional as soon as you notice any signs or symptoms of bipolar disorder, certain situations may call for emergency attention. Suicidal thoughts and actions are common symptoms of bipolar disorder and cannot be ignored.

If you have any thoughts of hurting yourself, don’t try to wait for an appointment. It can be helpful to confide in a trusted friend or family member, but you should call 911 or go immediately to an emergency room. You can also reach out to a crisis or suicide hotline by phone or text.

In the United States, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In Canada, you can also call 988 to reach the Suicide Crisis Helpline. You may also utilize the Lifeline Chat for online support.

If you have a loved one who you believe is in danger of suicide or has made an attempt, ensure someone is with them at all times. Call 911 on their behalf or bring them to emergency services immediately.

Bipolar Disorder – Prevention

There is no known, sure-fire way to prevent bipolar disorder. However, seeking treatment at the earliest signs of bipolar or any mental health disorder helps prevent the condition from worsening and doing more damage.

If you have a bipolar disorder diagnosis, there are some steps you can take to avoid triggers and prevent early symptoms from becoming more severe or turning into a full-blown episode:

  • Know your signs and triggers. By learning what circumstances or events may trigger an episode, you can mitigate and prevent it. Never ignore warning signs, and contact your doctor if you suspect an episode may be coming or starting. You can even have those around you help determine and watch for warning signs.
  • Follow medication instructions. Many things may tempt you to stop taking your medication, but you should never do so without medical approval and monitoring. Stopping or reducing dosages on your own can make symptoms worse, bring back symptoms that have stopped, and trigger an unpleasant or even dangerous withdrawal.
  • Avoid substances like alcohol and drugs. Not only can these substances potentially affect your medication, but they can worsen symptoms even on their own.

Is Bipolar Disorder Preventing you from working?

As noted above, bipolar disorder is a severe mental health condition characterized by extreme mood swings between manic and depressive episodes that can significantly impact an individual’s ability to maintain stable employment and lead a productive vocational life. The following are several key reasons why individuals with bipolar disorder may experience difficulties in the workplace and potentially require long-term disability support:

  1. Depressive episodes: During depressive phases, individuals with bipolar disorder may experience profound feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of energy. These symptoms can make it challenging to maintain regular attendance, concentrate on work tasks, and meet deadlines, leading to reduced productivity and job performance.
  2. Manic episodes: Manic episodes are characterized by elevated mood, impulsivity, and increased energy levels. During these periods, individuals may engage in risky behaviors, make poor decisions, and have difficulty focusing on work responsibilities. Manic episodes can also lead to strained relationships with colleagues and supervisors, further compromising job stability.
  3. Unpredictable mood swings: The cyclical nature of bipolar disorder, with alternating periods of depression and mania, can make it difficult for individuals to maintain consistent work performance. The unpredictability of mood swings can lead to absenteeism, erratic behavior, and difficulty meeting the demands of a structured work environment.
  4. Medication side effects: Many individuals with bipolar disorder require ongoing medication to manage their symptoms. However, these medications can often have side effects, such as fatigue, cognitive impairment, or tremors, which may interfere with work performance and productivity.
  5. Stigma and discrimination: Despite increased awareness and understanding of mental health conditions, individuals with bipolar disorder may still face stigma and discrimination in the workplace. This can lead to a lack of support, limited opportunities for advancement, and even wrongful termination, further exacerbating the challenges of maintaining stable employment.

When bipolar disorder significantly impairs an individual’s ability to work, they may be eligible to apply for disability benefits. These benefits provide financial support to help cover living expenses and medical costs associated with managing the condition. To qualify for long-term disability benefits, individuals typically need to provide extensive medical documentation demonstrating the severity and impact of their bipolar disorder on their daily functioning and work capacity. In other words, they must prove that they suffer a total disability in that the difficulties with bipolar disorder prevent them from performing the substantial duties of their own employment.

The process of applying for disability benefits can be complex and may require the assistance of legal professionals or disability advocates. These experts can help navigate the application process, gather necessary documentation, and ensure the individual’s rights are protected throughout the claims process.

It is important to note that while bipolar disorder can pose significant challenges to maintaining employment, many individuals with the condition are able to lead successful and fulfilling vocational lives with proper treatment, support, and accommodations in the workplace. Employers have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, including those with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, to ensure equal opportunities for success in the workplace.

Suffer from Bipolar Disorder and Denied Long-Term Disability? Contact our Disability Lawyers Today.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition that can have a profound impact on an individual’s ability to maintain stable employment and lead a fulfilling vocational life. The challenges posed by depressive episodes, manic episodes, unpredictable mood swings, medication side effects, and societal stigma can make it incredibly difficult for individuals with bipolar disorder to succeed in the workplace. When these challenges become overwhelming and significantly impair one’s ability to work, seeking long-term disability benefits may be necessary.

If you or a loved one has been denied long-term disability benefits for bipolar disorder, call our disability lawyers today. We can help guide you through the disability claims process and help get your benefits back on track. Remember, living with bipolar disorder is challenging enough; you shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of the disability benefits system alone.

Call us no matter where you are in Ontario at 1-844-4-DISABILITY. Alternatively, you can send us a confidential email through our website – and we would be happy to explain your long-term disability rights and legal options to you, at no cost.



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