Frequently Asked Questions About Depression and Bipolar Disorder

Q: What is depression?

A: Depression is a treatable, medical illness marked by changes in mood, thought and behavior. That’s why it’s called a mood disorder. Everyone, at various times in life, feels sad or blue. And it’s normal to feel sad on occasion. But what’s the difference between “normal” feelings of sadness and the feelings caused by depression?

  • How intense the mood is: Depression is more intense than a simple “bad mood.”
  • How long the mood lasts: A bad mood is usually gone in a few days, but depression lasts for two weeks or longer.
  • How much it interferes with your life: A bad mood doesn’t keep you from going to work or school or spending time with friends. Depression can keep you from doing these things and may even make it difficult to get out of bed.

Learn more about depression.

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Q: What is bipolar disorder?

A: Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) is a treatable, medical illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behavior. It is called bipolar disorder because a person’s mood can alternate between the “poles” of mania (high, elevated mood) and depression (low, depressed mood). These changes in mood (“mood swings”) can last for hours, days, weeks or even months.

Learn more about bipolar disorder.

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Q: Is there a cure?

A: No, there’s not yet a cure for depression or bipolar disorder. But research is underway to determine the exact cause of these illnesses, to develop better treatments and eventually a cure.

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Q: What is meant by “unipolar depression” and “bipolar depression?”

A: People who have recurrent episodes of major depression are sometimes said to have “unipolar depression” (or what used to be called “clinical depression”), because they only experience periods of low, or depressed mood. When people with bipolar disorder go through the low, depressed phase of the illness, they’re experiencing what is called “bipolar depression.” Their symptoms are very similar to those that someone with unipolar depression might have. The symptoms of unipolar and bipolar depression are very similar. The main difference is that someone with unipolar depression doesn’t experience the high periods of mania (if severe) or hypomania (if mild). And this is extremely important, because the preferred treatments of the two can be quite different.

Learn more about unipolar and bipolar depression.

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Q: What do I do if I think my child has depression or bipolar disorder?

A: Depression and bipolar disorder can affect children and adolescents. Talk to your pediatrician if you believe your child is experiencing any symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder. Your pediatrician may be able to help or may recommend that you talk to a professional who is experienced in treating these illnesses in children. Depression and bipolar disorder have symptoms similar to other illnesses (like ADHD and anxiety), so be sure that your doctor screens your child for all possible conditions.

Though your child may be diagnosed with a mood disorder, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t lead a full, productive and meaningful life. There are many treatments available today–and many in development–that can relieve symptoms so that children can participate in school and other activities.

Learn more about mood disorders in children.

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Q: I think I have depression/bipolar disorder. What should I do?

A: You can find free and confidential screening tools here on our website to help detect symptoms of depression and mania (a sign of bipolar disorder). They can help identify whether you may have one of these illnesses. Take the results of the screening to your doctor and talk with him/her about a possible diagnosis. Mood disorders need treatment just like any other illness, and early diagnosis is very important. Most treatment plans include a combination of medication, talk therapy, and support. Avoiding treatment out of embarrassment or shame—or because you can believe you can “snap out of it”—is a dangerous decision. Mood disorders aren’t something you can decide you will not have; they must be treated. Getting help is important.

Learn more about what to do next.

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Q: I have depression/bipolar disorder. Do I tell my employer? How?

A: Different people are comfortable with sharing different amounts of information. Some people feel that it’s not necessary to inform their employers of their diagnosis. For other people, however, their diagnosis and the need for some sort of accommodation at work have a significant impact on their job, and they feel a need to let their employer know.

You should always carefully assess your work environment before disclosing any kind of personal information. Weigh your employer’s level of tolerance, confidentiality, and understanding. And you might want to discuss the issue with your doctor and/or family before making a decision.

If you decide to inform your employer, be prepared to do some educating. Many people don’t know the facts about these illnesses, but sharing information should lessen any fear or stigma they might have. Also, be prepared to share with your employer how your diagnosis could affect your work. Sharing your own experiences with a mood disorder might set the example for others to do the same.

Learn more about mood disorders and the workplace.

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Q: What happens if I drink alcohol or use drugs while I’m taking medication for depression/bipolar disorder?

A: Drinking alcohol or taking drugs while on medication for mood disorders can be very harmful. Always talk to your doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist before mixing alcohol or drugs with prescription medications. Also, ask your pharmacist for the package insert from your medication that tells you about how your medication interacts with other drugs and the possible side effects. Make sure you know how alcohol or substance use will affect you while you’re taking your medication for a mood disorder. Educating yourself could save your life.

Learn more about substance use and mood disorders.

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Q: I have terrible side effects from my medication. What can I do?

A: Many medications have side effects that might include dry mouth, nausea, constipation, sleepiness, weight gain, weight loss, or sexual dysfunction (in both men and women). Some side effects go away after a few days or weeks, while others can be long-term. Discuss any concerns you have with your doctor before s/he prescribes a medication.

Also, be sure to tell your doctor about any side effects you’re experiencing. He or she may suggest ways to help relieve some of those side effects. For example, your doctor might recommend that you:

  • Change the time you take your medication.
  • Take your medication with or without food.
  • Keep to your daily routine. Eat healthy meals, get regular exercise, and get plenty of rest.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Stay as physically active as you can. Even light exercise like walking can help minimize physical effects of stress.
Never stop taking your medication or change your dose without first talking with your doctor.

Learn more about side effects and how to deal with them.

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Q: Is it safe to take my medication if I’m pregnant or nursing?

A: If you’re planning on getting pregnant, try to discuss your concerns ahead of time with your doctor. If you become pregnant while taking medication for depression or bipolar disorder, inform your doctor immediately. The two of you together should discuss your health in detail and make decisions about medication that balance your need for the medication with any risks the medication may pose. The greatest period of risk for most women on medication is the first trimester–the first three months–of pregnancy.

If you nurse or are planning to nurse, talk with your doctor. Just like caffeine and alcohol are known to be present in breast milk, medications may also be.

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Q: Is it OK to take natural/herbal supplements to treat mood disorders?

A: Before you start taking any over-the-counter supplements or medication, talk to your doctor. There are many dietary supplements and other alternative treatments advertised to have a positive effect on depression or bipolar disorder. These include St. John’s Wort, SAM-E, Omega-3 fatty acids (like fish oil), and others. Because of the lack of scientific data, DBSA does not endorse or discourage the use of these treatments.

Be aware, however, that “natural” isn’t always the same thing as “safe.” Different brands of supplements may contain different concentrations of the active substance. Many alternative treatments could have negative affects on other medications you are taking. That’s why it’s important to talk first with your doctor.

Learn more about dietary supplements.

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Q: I think that someone I care about has bipolar disorder/depression. What can I do?

A: First, educate yourself about the symptoms of these illnesses. Then pick an appropriate time when you can quietly discuss your concerns with this person. Comparing their behavior with the symptoms, explain why you believe he or she should be screened for depression or bipolar disorder. Resist the urge to function as a therapist yourself, and encourage him/her to seek professional help. Reassure him/her that you’ve brought this up because of how much you care and want to help him/her feel better. Remind your loved one that s/he is not alone and that things can get better. Gather information to help him/her make a decision about seeing a professional skilled in treating depression and bipolar disorder. Most of all, be supportive and caring.

Learn more about helping a loved one.

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Q: Does DBSA recommend doctors or other professionals?

A: DBSA does not recommend or refer individuals to specific mental health professionals or facilities. Our “Find A Pro” database, however, offers a list of professionals and facilities around the country recommended by other patients.

Access this database.

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Q: Does DBSA have a crisis hotline, counselors, or doctors on staff that I can talk to?

A: Because we are a peer- and consumer-run organization, DBSA does not counseling or medical professionals on staff and do not have a crisis hotline.

If you or someone you know has thoughts of death or suicide, contact a medical professional, clergy member, loved one, friend, or hospital emergency room. Or call the National Hopeline Network/National Suicide Prevention Hotline toll-free at (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255) or call 9-1-1 immediately to get help

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Q: Are DBSA support groups run by mental health professionals? Are they just for patients, or are there also support groups for family members?

A: DBSA support groups are peer-led and peer-facilitated. Each group does have a professional advisor. Professional advisors range from psychiatrists and psychologists to nurses and social workers. They usually do not attend support group meetings and never act as the group’s facilitator.

Many of our support groups do offer meetings for friends and family. That information may be included with the contact information posted on our website here. You will also find this information, as well as other helpful resources, in the online Family Center. If a friends’/family group is not available, you may want to contact your local group’s facilitator to inquire about possibly starting up meetings for friends and family.

See a listing of support groups.
Visit the Family Center.

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Q: Does DBSA offer any online, Internet support groups?

A: Yes, DBSA offers live, real-time support group meetings on the Internet for people living with mood disorders, their friends and family. Online support is ideal for those who live too far from their local DBSA group, have limited mobility or simply wish to remain anonymous. Led by volunteer peer facilitators, these meetings follow the same format and guidelines as DBSA’s in-person support groups. Each group meets once a week, and you can attend as many sessions as you’d like, free of charge. Registration is required, but there’s no charge to register or participate.

Learn more.

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Q: I can’t afford my medications. Does DBSA have any resources to help?

A: DBSA does maintain a list of prescription drug assistance programs, many of which offer discounted (or sometimes free) medications for qualified applicants.

Access this information.

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Q: Can DBSA give me advice on a particular medication?

A: Any questions you might have about medications and/or treatment should be answered by your doctor or someone trained and qualified to do so, such as your pharmacist or another health care provider. DBSA can provide you with resources that may help you to learn more about medications, but because we do not have medical professionals on staff, we cannot offer advice on medication and/or treatment.

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