Practitioners often confuse bipolar 2 and depression because the symptoms are so similar. (Photo: Nik Shuliahin, StockSnap)

Roughly 40 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety, and nearly half of those are also diagnosed with some form of depression. No mental illness gets enough attention, but anxiety and depression are talked about the most. It makes sense, as they are the most common forms of mental illness people suffer from. However, there’s one common mental illness that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. It’s known as bipolar disorder.

There two common types of bipolar disorder: bipolar 1 disorder and bipolar 2 disorder.

Bipolar 1

When people think of bipolar disorder, they might think of Charlie Sheen claiming he had “tiger blood” a few years back. He did this, of course, in a fit of mania, which is a major characteristic of bipolar 1 disorder.

Specifically, bipolar 1 is characterized by extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression). Mania or manic episodes can be so severe that they require hospitalization. They often result in the following symptoms: exceptional energy, restlessness, trouble concentrating, euphoria, risky behaviors and poor sleep.

Mania manifests itself differently from one person to the next. It can result in someone emptying their bank account and maxing out all their credit cards. It can also result in drug or alcohol abuse in combination with other risky behavior. Regardless of what someone experiencing mania does specifically, it’s usually easy to spot mania. It results in abnormal and often-strange behavior.

Bipolar 2
Whereas bipolar 1 can be easy to spot, the same can’t be said for bipolar 2. Both forms of bipolar disorder are lifelong illnesses, meaning there is no cure. However, even doctors often diagnose bipolar 2 as depression. Why? Because it can often be difficult to tell the difference between major depression and bipolar 2, especially if the diagnosis comes from a person’s general practitioner.

Even psychologists and psychiatrists sometimes get this diagnosis wrong. It’s not because they aren’t properly trained or good at their jobs. The differences are just that subtle.

Bipolar 2 disorder results in major depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks, but the length can and will vary from person to person and from one instance to the next. There’s no way to predict how long a major depressive episode will last, but when it does end, it results in a hypomanic episode. Unlike mania, which is often a noticeable break from normal behavior that even strangers can notice, hypomania is much more subtle.

Hypomania usually doesn’t require hospitalization, and though friends and family may notice these episodes, they also might not. Hypomania for some is subtle enough that it might be a temporary reprieve from crippling depression and nothing more.

A new study on bipolar disorder
The catalyst for this article was a recent study out of the University of Michigan that studied over 1,100 individuals suffering from bipolar disorder for more than a decade. The researchers set out to understand why these people suffer from bipolar disorder. Was it genetic? Was it the result of trauma in their life, or was it something else entirely?

The researchers found seven answers to help explain why people develop bipolar disorder.

The full study can be viewed here. It’s difficult to summarize the seven answers they describe, but the classifications are disease, neurocognitive, temperament personality, motivated behaviors, life story, sleep and circadian, and outcomes and course.

The research broke less new ground than it did explain what specialists already knew in much greater detail. Specifically, they noted that eating disorders, anxiety disorders and alcohol problems are more common in people with bipolar disorder. More people with bipolar disorder have a history of childhood trauma than those who don’t have the condition.

Poor sleep increases the severity of the symptoms associated with bipolar disorder. Also, migraines were found to be three and a half times more common among those with bipolar disorder than those without.

Where does that leave us?
Bipolar disorder, like depression, is not something any of us should be forced to fight alone. Medication, taken properly, can and will help those suffering from mental illness. Some people also benefit from therapy sessions. No matter what course you take when dealing with mental illness, it’s important you don’t rely on one single thing to make you better.

Medicine is often necessary, sometimes for the rest of your life. The same can be said for therapy, and natural methods can and will help anyone suffering from mental illness.

Those include exercise, getting enough sunlight, organizing your day, getting enough sleep and eating a more balanced, healthier diet. These small changes will add up to serious improvement over time, but it’s important to remember this battle requires vigilance. Researchers have yet to find a gene in the human body that indicates someone is suffering from bipolar disorder. As a result, there is not and may never be a cure.

So it’s important to maintain the healthy routines we make for ourselves, but to get better, you have to know what you’re up against, don’t you? If you or a loved one is suffering from mental health problems and medicine isn’t helping, it might simply be that your bipolar 2 has been misdiagnosed as depression. It can’t hurt to ask your doctor about this possibility.

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.