“My partner has to be bipolar…I never can predict what his mood is going to be, and the littlest things get him upset. But then, a few hours later, he’s fine again.”
“My coworker never seems to need sleep! She sends me emails at 3:30 am, and wonders why I’m not awake to answer them. But then, she misses deadlines and is furious when projects don’t run as she would like. Does she have bipolar or something?”
Bipolar disorder has a bad rap, and is largely misunderstood by lay people with no mental health training. Even those of us who are trained in psychology can sometimes be mystified by the presentation of bipolar disorder.
The above examples illustrate that people understand bipolar disorder includes having extreme ranges of emotion, but the key element that’s missing is how quickly those emotions change. People with active bipolar disorder experience their depression or mania for days, weeks, months or (unfortunately) longer–not in short increments that can be measured in minutes or hours.
If your partner is experiencing mood changes, here are some of the signs that it is likely just a “mood swing,” and not bipolar disorder:
- The mood (high or low) does not last for days on end (or longer).
- Your partner’s behaviors do not include wild spending sprees, feeling as if they are invincible, promiscuous sexual activities, gambling, excessive drinking or using drugs, or impulsive/dangerous decisions. When making the diagnosis of bipolar disorder versus something else, clinicians assess for manic episodes, which the aforementioned behaviors would fall into.
- Your partner does not interrupt their normal life activities because of the mood, such as staying home from work, not getting out of bed, not eating or sleeping, etc. Life goes on like usual, even though they are feeling particularly good or bad.
If you are concerned about your partner’s mood and behaviors, it is best for a trained mental health professional to make the diagnosis. Talk with your partner about what you are noticing, and encourage them to seek help. If your partner is in a manic episode, convincing them they need assistance will be challenging, but if you are concerned about their safety, taking them to an emergency room for assessment is in their best interest.