There is a myth that people develop mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, simply because they are 'weak or unable' to function in the real world. That's simply not true.

Literally anyone can suffer from bipolar disorder. On average, 1% of all adults have bipolar disorder. In comparison, depression itself affects 6% of all Americans.

In most cases, the disorder has been prevalent in the individual since childhood, although it is usually first diagnosed when the person reaches young adulthood (between ages 18 and 24). Both men and women are affected by the disorder in about even numbers.

One of the biggest factors in who becomes bipolar is genetics. If your parent or sibling has bipolar disorder, you stand a greater chance of developing the disorder. In fact, you have a 10-20% chance of developing the disorder.

Unfortunately, misdiagnosis is still a common problem for those with bipolar disorder. One reason is that sufferers usually only seek treatment on their own during a depressive episode since they never recognize a problem while in a manic period. As a result, they may be diagnosed as having depression and may be given a prescription for anti-depressants. Drugs given for depression may actually cause them to go into a sudden manic episode which can actually escalate the problems. Further complicating the diagnosis is the fact that many bipolar patients also have other types of problems, such as eating disorders or substance abuse problems.

That brings us to another important point: how can you tell the difference between normal mood swings and those associated with bipolar disorder?

Keep in mind that everyone has mood swings from time to time. However, if your loved one has bipolar disorder, there are noticeable differences between their mood swings and those experienced by the general public as a result of stress, hormones, etc.

First, the difference in moods will be much more extreme. Someone who is usually shy and cautious could become an outgoing, risk-taking person. Someone who is careful about spending money could go on a shopping spree and spend every penny they have in the bank. These aren't exaggerations - the change is really this extreme.

Second, the average mood swing for a person without bipolar disorder lasts about a few hours. At most, it might last a couple of days. However, for someone with bipolar disorder, manic or depressive episodes will last weeks or months if it's not treated.

Finally, most of us can still manage our normal tasks, like working and parenting, even when we have a mood swing. Most people with bipolar disorder cannot. Because the moods are so intense, they interfere with every aspect of that person's life. They won't be able to concentrate on their work, they may scream endlessly at their children, they may lock themselves in a room for days, they may stop eating, they may sleep only a couple of hours a night. As a result, it becomes almost impossible for someone with bipolar disorder to function normally during an episode.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may be having mood swings caused by bipolar disorder, then you need to be examined by a doctor or take them to a doctor, preferably someone who is knowledgeable about bipolar disorder. The longer you wait, the worse the problem is going to get. It will not go away on its own.