The Difference Between Teen Depression and Teen Bipolar Disorder

If your teen is experiencing psychological symptoms and his or her level of functioning at school, home, or work is not as high as it could be, then you’re likely focused on getting your child the right treatment. This can include finding the right psychologist to work with, the best psychiatrist, and working with school counselors to ensure your teen receives support in school.


Certainly, the priority is to get treatment so that your adolescent’s psychological symptoms can stabilize. However, once that is underway, a significant part of supporting your child is what therapists and psychologists do with their clients often and that is provide psycho-education.

Psycho-education is a way of teaching your child about the disorder that he or she has. With an understanding of the mental illness comes learning about its symptoms and how they uniquely affect your child, along with understanding how to best manage those symptoms.

Mood Disorders: Teen Depression and Teen Bipolar Disorder

It’s common to get confused among the many psychological illnesses and their symptoms. However, a closer look at them can reveal a better way to understand them. For instance the American Psychological Association categorizes mental illness by how they affect the individual, such as mood, cognition, impulse, or dissociation. Depression and Teen Bipolar Disorder, for example, are mood disorders. They both affect the way one feels and the emotions or moods they might experience.

The most defining difference between teen depression and teen bipolar disorder is the experience of moods. For instance, depression is often also called unipolar depression, uni meaning one and polar meaning pole. You could think of moods as being on a continuum, depression, sadness, loneliness, and lack of energy on one pole and mania, high energy, and euphoria on the other pole. In the case of a mentally healthy individual, he or she might experience moods that stay somewhere in the middle of this continuum, dipping a bit into either sadness or joy at times, but not excessively in either direction.

Unipolar Depression

Unipolar depression, however, is the experience of staying on one pole of this continuum. A teen with depression might experience these symptoms:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Loss of interest in sexual activity
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating or focusing
  • Difficulty in memory
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Oversleeping
  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Suicidal ideation

Teen Bipolar Disorder

Teen bipolar disorder (bi meaning two) is characterized by the swing of moods between mania and depression, moving between both poles. In addition to the symptoms of depression listed above, a teen might also experience

  • Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
  • Excessively “high”, euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to the other
  • Distractibility – an inability to concentrate
  • Unrealistic beliefs about one’s abilities
  • Poor judgment
  • Spending sprees
  • Increased sex drive
  • Little sleep
  • Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong

Bipolar disorder is often accompanied by substance use, particularly during periods of mania. Some teens will also engage in forms of self-harm. Such as cutting or risky behavior as a way to take away their emotional pain and accelerate the highs. Also, to further clarify the differences between diagnoses, bipolar disorder has two types.

Bipolar I –This first type of Bipolar, also known as Bipolar I, includes one or more distinct periods of mania, and could also include a mixed period. For instance, if there is a period of mania, there might also be features of depression and if there is a period of depression, there might also be features of mania.

Bipolar II – The second type of Bipolar is characterized by at least one episode of hypomania and at least one episode of depression. This diagnosis can be made only if the individual has not ever experienced a period of mania. Hypomania is an episode of that is less severe than a full episode of mania.


The benefit of knowing the differences between diagnoses is really like getting to know the experiences your child is having. Although the mental health professionals you are working with are responsible for forming an accurate diagnosis, there’s no harm in educating yourself. Furthermore, once you’re sure that your child has been accurately diagnosed, everything else – medication, therapy, interventions, and treatment in general – can follow.