Bipolar disorder

Discover the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder, and what you can do to help.

This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you are worried about someone or are experiencing signs or symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder

Close to 2 per cent of Australians have bipolar disorder, but many go untreated. 

Jump to section: Signs and symptoms | Types | CausesTreatment | Getting support

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that involves extreme changes in mood and energy levels, with periods of highs and low moods that are more intense than the usual ups and downs of life.

The ‘highs’ that people with bipolar disorder experience can cause issues in their personal or professional life since they may say or do inappropriate things or engage in risky or reckless behaviour.

During low periods, bipolar disorder can have a high risk of suicide.

For these reasons it’s extremely important to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment from a mental health professional.

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and episode to episode. The pattern of highs and lows can also be very different for each person. Some people can experience frequent mood swings, for example daily, while for others, high episodes can be rare.

Not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences the high mood of ‘mania.’ Some people experience ‘hypomania,’ which are highs where they are more euphoric or ‘up’ or hyper than usual, but less intense than mania.

Additionally, people with bipolar disorder also experience periods where they are clinically depressed, where symptoms of depression last for two weeks or more.

Symptoms of mania or hypomania can include:

  • Racing thoughts or speech
  • Impulsiveness
  • Disinhibited behaviour or speech (this can manifest as saying or doing absurd things)
  • Risky behaviour (e.g. excessive shopping/alcohol or drug use/gambling)
  • Increased sex drive with potential risky behaviour related to sex
  • More irritable or impatient
  • Feeling more creative, more intense senses, having an epiphany, extreme confidence
  • Not needing to sleep
  • Restlessness or more hyper than usual
  • Finding special meaning in everyday things—feeling enlightened or having mystical experiences or new perspective
  • Hallucinations or delusions. Read more about hallucinations and delusions here

Symptoms of depression

  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes to sleep patterns
  • Withdrawing from people or activities you normally enjoy
  • Struggling with motivation or concentration
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, or low self esteem
  • Thoughts of suicide.

Bipolar disorder can be challenging to diagnose, and can look very different from one person to the next.  If you have symptoms you are concerned about you can do this online self-test. It will give you an idea whether your symptoms may be similar to bipolar disorder or a related disorder and suggest next steps. 

24/7 Mental Health Phone Support

Members with Hospital cover can talk with a mental health professional over the phone in relation to any mental health or emotional concern, 24 hours a day 7 days a week on 1800 644 325~.

Types of bipolar disorder

Bipolar 1 

People with bipolar 1 have more extreme highs and can experience psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusional thinking. Their manic episodes generally last for at least a week.  They are also more likely to need to be hospitalised than people with bipolar 2. 

Bipolar 2

Bipolar 2 involves mood swings with less intense highs and no psychotic symptoms. People with bipolar 2 usually don’t need to be hospitalised.

Cyclothymic disorder

Cyclothymic disorder involves unpredictable mood swings, but the highs and lows are shorter and less extreme than experienced by people with bipolar 1 or 2.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn’t known, and several factors may be involved.

Bipolar disorder has a strong genetic component and often runs in families. A child with one parent who has the condition has a 10% chance of developing it, and this rises to 40% if both parents have it.  It’s not yet known why some people with a family history develop bipolar disorder and others don’t.

Stressful experiences or events can trigger the onset of bipolar disorder, and have also been linked to relapse. Pregnancy or the birth of a baby haves also been linked to onset and relapse of bipolar disorder. Having bipolar disorder develop for the first time during pregnancy or just after the baby is born is more common among women with a family history.

Treatment for bipolar disorder

With the right support and treatment, bipolar disorder can be effectively managed and you can go on to live a full and productive life. It’s important to get treatment   even if you start to feel better as it’s likely that symptoms will happen again.

Treatment for bipolar disorder usually involves two parts. First, your doctor will work with you to treat the symptoms you’re currently experiencing. Depending on their assessment, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or a hospital emergency department. They will likely prescribe medicines to stabilise your mood and/or reduce psychotic symptoms.  If you have depression that doesn’t respond to medicines, they might recommend another treatment such as electroconvulsive therapy. Once you’re stable, treatment will focus on helping you to stay well, reducing the chance of another episode, and improving your quality of life. Psychological therapies and lifestyle changes can help with this (in addition to medicine).

Where to get help

The best place to start is by speaking to your GP or health practitioner. They will be able to assess your individual situation and recommend the best next steps for your recovery.

Our team of mental health professionals are here to support you on our 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support line. It’s available to Medibank members with hospital cover 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 644 325~.

If at any point you feel like someone’s life is in danger, seek immediate help. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for crisis support and call 000 if you believe that someone’s life is in danger.

For more support and information

Black Dog Institute

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Make the most of your cover 

As an eligible Medibank member, you get more than just health insurance. You get extra support when you need it most. 

24/7 Mental Health Phone Support

Members with Hospital cover~ can talk with a mental health professional over the phone in relation to any mental health or emotional concern, 24 hours a day 7 days a week on 1800 644 325.

Telehealth services

Access mental health services from the comfort of your own home. Medibank members with eligible extras can access psychology or counselling consultations face-to-face or through telehealth, with benefits payable towards Medibank recognised Counsellors only.#

Mental Health Waiver

With the Mental Health Waiver, eligible hospital members with Restricted psychiatric services can upgrade to a cover with Included psychiatric services and choose to have the standard two-month waiting period waived. Members can use the Mental Health Waiver once in their lifetime.

Looking for more?
Learn more about using your cover and exclusive services to support you and your family. View all services.

Further reading

Seeking help: the basics                      

Where to go for help to navigate a mental health issue.                                                                                                                                          

Managing panic attacks

Management and recovery             

Find out about recovery and managing your mental health for a meaningful life, with or without a mental health issue.                                                         

man making emergency phone call

13 digital tools for mental health and wellbeing

A guide to the online tools and apps, also known as e-therapy, that may help manage your mental health.                                      

Sad young man looking through the window

Learning to cope with intense feelings

Learn how to step back, have all your emotions, and choose your behaviour.                                                                                                          

Looking for something else?

Visit our Medibank Better Minds homepage to find more tools and services.

Talk to us about your cover and accessing services 

Contact Medibank when and how it suits you: online 24/7, in-store, by phone or through the My Medibank app.

Things you need to know

~ OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

# Check your cover summary to see if these services are included on your extras cover and if annual limits apply.  Counsellors must be registered with Australian Counselling Association, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Australian Traditional Medicine Society.   

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).