top of page

What Could Happen With Untreated Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), just over 4% of the US population meets the criteria for bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). Many people have severe cases of the condition, and the symptoms can drastically impact their quality of life.

Unfortunately, bipolar disorder is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. But if left untreated, people are at a greater risk for life-threatening side effects like psychosis, substance use, or suicide attempts. Let's get into what you need to know:

Understanding Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

You can't prevent bipolar disorder, and experts don't exactly know what causes it. Like any mental health disorder, it's likely that a combination of factors may increase your chance of developing it. Understanding how manic and depressive states can help you better recognize key symptoms. If you're a loved one, it can also help you avoid enabling bipolar disorder.

Manic or Hypomanic Episodes

A manic episode refers to having heightened energy levels. When someone is in this state, they tend to feel frenzied and chaotic. They may have a surplus of confidence, causing them to make reckless or impulsive decisions. A hypomanic episode has similar features as a manic episode, but the symptoms are less severe.

Depressive Symptoms

Depressive episodes generally consist of apathy, irritation, and fatigue. You might feel sad the entire day and even completing basic tasks seems impossible.

Mood Swings

People often associate bipolar disorder with mood swings. Erratic mood swings are more common in cyclothymic disorder than in bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. Still, many people report that their emotions and thoughts often feel erratic. Severe episodes can make it challenging to feel like you're in control of your own mind.

Psychotic Symptoms

In some cases, bipolar disorder can coincide with psychotic symptoms. Someone may become paranoid or experience hallucinations or delusions. Psychosis can be the most concerning feature, as it may correlate with suicidal thoughts or other life-threatening behaviors. People with histories of substance use (or those who are actively taking non-prescribed medication) are more prone to psychotic symptoms.

What Prevents People with Bipolar Disorder From Getting Treatment?

Unfortunately, many people don't get the support they need to deal with manic and depressive episodes. Here are some of the main barriers:


It's no secret that we stigmatize certain mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder. People may worry about being labeled crazy or unwell. They might worry about being hospitalized against their will. Or, they might fear that a diagnosis on their medical chart will affect health insurance coverage or employment opportunities.

Depressive Episodes

A severe depressive episode can make getting out of bed challenging. Seeking treatment during this time might seem like an impossible task. The hopelessness and sense of discouragement during this time can make recovery feel futile.

Lack of Accessible Treatment Options

Although society is making significant strides with treatment accessibility, we still have a way to go. Psychiatric clinics may be full, specialized therapists might have waitlists, or people might live in areas where mental health treatment doesn't readily exist.

Mistrust with Treatment Professionals

If you've had bad experiences with doctors or therapists in the past, you may feel discouraged from reaching out for care. This is especially true if you haven't received a correct diagnosis or if you've felt shamed due to your symptoms.

What are the Main Risk Factors of Untreated Bipolar Disorder?

Untreated mental illness can be problematic for numerous reasons.

Diminished quality of life: Bipolar disorder symptoms can be intense and disruptive to your everyday routine. Over time, they may impact work and school performance. For this reason, many people with bipolar disorder struggle to hold down a job, get along with coworkers, or find the motivation to look for work.

Relationship problems: Any mental health condition can interfere with relationship satisfaction, and this is particularly true with bipolar disorder. Your partner may feel frustrated by the manic or depressive symptoms. They might not understand how to provide support or encourage treatment.

Financial problems: Severe mania can lead people to engage in risky behaviors like closing bad business deals, gambling, or compulsive shopping. Problems with delayed gratification also make it hard to budget and save money.

Suicide: One systematic review shows that the suicide rate is 10-30x higher for people with bipolar disorder than people in the general population. People with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at a rate of 20-60%. Up to 20% of people with bipolar disorder die by suicide.

What Are the Best Practices for Treating Bipolar Disorder?

Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step toward making an effective treatment plan. When diagnosing bipolar disorder, mental health professionals take several variables into consideration. They will assess the severity of symptoms, review family history, and rule out other similar conditions like depression or personality disorders.

Medical evaluation: It's important for people with bipolar disorder to look after their physical health. A medical evaluation can screen for issues that underlie or exacerbate mental health problems.

Comprehensive treatment plan: A treatment plan lists goals and objectives for care. Ultimately, someone with bipolar disorder benefits from having this structure. Some goals may feel too challenging right now. But working with the right treatment team can help them seem more feasible. Your treatment plan should also include care for other comorbid issues like substance use, anxiety disorders, or disordered eating.

Assessment for crisis issues and suicidal ideation: Mood disorders go hand-in-hand with crisis issues. It's important to routinely assess for safety concerns like self-harm or suicidal thoughts. If you struggle with these issues, it doesn't make you a bad person. But you deserve specialized treatment options that can help you feel better.

Antipsychotic medications: Antipsychotic medications (also known as mood stabilizers) are usually the first line of defense in treating bipolar disorder. Everyone responds to medication differently, and it's important to review side effects like brain fog, weight gain, or fatigue with your healthcare provider.

Talk therapy: Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment to learn more about your symptoms, triggers, and general obstacles. You will learn how to cope with your distress and implement healthier techniques to manage mood swings.

Healthy lifestyle changes: People with bipolar disorder may struggle to look after their physical and emotional health. For this reason, it's important to adopt healthy changes in your daily routine. This usually includes getting enough rest, eating regularly, exercising, managing stress, and avoiding mood-altering substances.

Focus on maintenance treatment: Maintenence helps ensure a long-term recovery. You may not be able to prevent manic or depressive episodes from occurring altogether. But by adhering to your treatment requirements, you will have a greater sense of control over your condition. Over time, the bipolar episodes may feel less intense or emotionally jarring.

Is Bipolar II Disorder Less Problematic Than Bipolar I Disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), bipolar II disorder is less severe than bipolar I disorder. That said, all types of bipolar disorders can progressively worsen. In fact, some people overlook bipolar II symptoms and dismiss them as normal ups and downs. Because these individuals might "fly under the radar," they may also be more likely to disregard other symptoms or seek professional help.

What About Cyclothymic Disorder?

Cyclothymic disorder refers to a rapid-cycling state. It's a type of bipolar disorder characterized by frequent mood swings. In one moment, you may feel sad or depressed. But in the next, you might feel energetic and euphoric. Between these alternating mood episodes, you might just feel "fine."

How We Help Treat Bipolar Disorder

Our treatment for bipolar disorder is both comprehensive and integrative. We understand how your condition may negatively impact the relationships you have with loved ones. We also recognize how connecting with the right mental health professional can make all the difference in your recovery.

Bipolar disorder doesn't have to define your identity. At Mental Health Transitions, we treat acute and severe mental disorders with compassion, unwavering support, and evidence-based care. Even if other treatments haven't worked, we're confident we can help you build a fulfilling life.

We are here to help you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more.

83 views0 comments


bottom of page