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What Bipolar Isn’t: Part I Major Depressive Disorder

What Bipolar Isn't: Part IThis post is one of four about four mental illnesses that are often mistaken for bipolar disorder or one another in general: major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. In this post: Major Depressive Disorder

For those of us with psychological disorders, the distinction between them is incredibly important. As with cancer, the different diagnoses help determine our treatments and coping mechanisms. We can predict our behavior and more easily deal with it. We can explain to others what happens in our minds and brains. Basically, when we have a condition that is hard enough to deal with, having the right diagnosis makes it just that much easier.

The distinctions seem less important for those who have no personal experience (having the disorder yourself or knowing someone with a disorder). A lot of people just lump us together and call us “crazy,” “bipolar,” or “psychotic.” That’s their prerogative, but it’s uninformed and often hurtful. So, let’s talk about it. Here is a brief summary of the four most commonly lumped psychological illnesses often confused with bipolar disorder and each other with their symptoms and treatments.

Part I

Major Depressive Disorder

First of all, the vast majority of people experience depression during their lifetime. It’s completely normal. Most people recover from depression. With major depressive disorder, it keeps going though the severity differs from person to person. It’s more than just having a somber personality or a mood brought on by external circumstances like the death of a loved one. It’s a life-altering change in mood.

Depression can start off as person’s loss of interest in activities and their normal lives. Nothing is as appealing as it once was: working, hobbies or spending time with friends or family. Patients often experience fatigue. It’s not “I need more coffee” fatigue; it’s more “I haven’t slept in days and my entire body can feel it” fatigue. The problem is, fatigue is not necessarily related to sleep. Patients can experience insomnia or sleep too much.

Loss of interest applies to eating too. Some people are not motivated enough to eat and will lose weight. Others will eat more to help cope with their depression and will gain weight. It depends on the person.

The trait that defines depression is hopelessness that can lead to consistent thoughts of death and can lead to suicide or suicide attempts. The most common treatments to stave off the symptoms of depression are serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (antidepressants) and therapy.

The difference between depression and bipolar disorder? While those of us with bipolar disorder experience depression, but those with depression don’t often experience periods of mania or hypomania. Depression can sometimes be called unipolar depression because of this.

Words of advice: please do not ever tell someone with depression to “Cheer up.” They’re not depressed on purpose, and implying it’s their fault is just going to make things worse.

Part II: Borderline Personality Disorder >>

What Bipolar Isn’t: Part I Major Depressive Disorder

LaRae LaBouff

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APA Reference
LaBouff, L. (2015). What Bipolar Isn’t: Part I Major Depressive Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Sep 2015
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