Many people struggle with depression.  Depression itself can be as simple as a sign of a bad day (or few days), or it can be a sign of something bigger – a psychiatric illness such as major depression or bipolar disorder.  How, then, can we tell the difference between major depression and bipolar disorder?


Depression affects approximately 21 million Americans.  It affects their quality of life on a physical, psychological, and social level.  People who have depression often become absent from school or work, and their social life and family life diminishes as their depression increases.  They begin to isolate, so that they begin losing friends, family, and others who are close to them.

The most common illness associated with depression is called major depression.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression affects approximately 6.7% of our population.  It is characterized by a depressed mood and loss of interest in (or pleasure derived from) normal activities.


Other common symptoms of major depression can include the following: significant weight change; change in sleep habits; fatigue; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; inability to focus; inability to think clearly or make decisions; and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. Some physical symptoms may include body aches, headaches, and stomach aches.According to NIMH, bipolar disorder affects approximately 2.6% of our population.  It is completely different from major depression, although it does have depression as one of its symptoms.  However, someone with bipolar disorder usually experiences manic symptoms as well.  Manic states are characterized by the following: racing thoughts; rapid speech; decreased sleep; and possible delusions and hallucinations.  If delusions are present, they generally involve feelings of grandeur (greatness), and hallucinations typically involve seeing or hearing from important people.


People in a bipolar manic episode may exhibit risk-taking behavior such as: excessive spending; reckless driving; risky sexual behavior; gambling; and substance abuse.   In most cases, following a manic episode, the person with bipolar disorder will "crash" into a depressive episode before returning to a normal state.


Therefore, there is a difference between major depression and bipolar depression, as major depression does not involve the mood swings of bipolar disorder.  In addition, in major depression you will not find the manic state that is characteristic of bipolar disorder.