Bipolar Disorder and ADHD

Bipolar Disorder and ADHD explained

Bipolar disorder and ADHD are conditions that are increasingly being diagnosed in children and teenagers in the US and are often diagnosed together. Diagnosis can be difficult, however, especially as some of the symptoms can also be typical behavior in young people.

In the case of teenagers, bipolar disorder can cause mood swings but this can also be a normal part of adolescence. It can be difficult to determine what is a development stage and what is bipolar disorder with periodic mood changes shifting from mania to depression. Symptoms of ADHD and bipolar disorder can also be very similar.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic depression, causes mood swings, ranging from depression to mania. The symptoms will depend on which mood is being experienced and, unlike normal mood swings, each extreme episode can last for weeks or months. Some people will be diagnosed as having clinical depression but will then have a manic episode, which could happen years later, and are then diagnosed with bipolar.

During a period of mania, the person with bipolar disorder may feel happy and full of energy, ideas and ambitious plans. Some people will spend lots of money on items they can't really afford and wouldn't usually want.

They might not feel like eating or sleeping, may talk quickly and might become annoyed easily. Some people might feel extremely creative and feel that their manic phases are a positive experience, while others experience psychosis symptoms, seeing and hearing things which aren't really there or becoming convinced of facts that aren't actually true.

Mania does not have such a defined definition when it occurs in children, however, and some bipolar experts claim that negativity and irritability might be the only indicators of mania in young people. Other experts in the field even claim that childhood bipolar disorder is not the same condition as the adult version.

The cause of the condition is unknown but extreme stress and major life events could be contributing factors, as could chemical and genetic features. It is widely accepted that children whose parents have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are more likely to have the condition themselves.

The condition often manifests itself between the ages of 15 and 19 and rarely appears for the first time after the age of 40.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the term given to a group of behaviors that can typically include impulsiveness, hyperactivity and inattentiveness. Symptoms are normally noticed in childhood, usually between the ages of six and 12, and symptoms will usually improve as the person gets older. Many adults do continue to have problems, however.

ADHD sufferers may also have other issues, such as anxiety and sleep disorders, along with bipolar disorder and Tourette's syndrome. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls and diagnoses are possible when children are as young as two.

Each individual will experience their own unique symptoms but these can include:

  • Frequent daydreaming
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Trouble completing tasks
  • Constant movement

It is important to remember, however, that not everyone who has this type of symptoms has ADHD. This applies to children in particular, as some will naturally be more distractible or active than others. It is usually when behaviors start to interfere with a person's life that the condition might be suspected.

Similarities between bipolar disorder and ADHD

Mood swings can be a symptom of both ADHD and bipolar disorder. A child, teenager or adult with ADHD may also have symptoms which mimic those of bipolar disorder such as impulsive or rapid speech, trouble focusing, physical restlessness, irritability and oppositional or defiant behavior.

It is important to get the right diagnosis, since bipolar disorder can get worse over a period of time, especially without the correct treatment.

Bipolar Disorder and ADHD differences

One of the major differences between bipolar disorder and ADHD is that the former affects mood while the latter affects attention and behavior. Another difference is that people with bipolar cycle through different mood episodes, whereas people with ADHD have chronic symptoms which do not cycle. People with ADHD are also likely to be diagnosed earlier in life than those with bipolar disorder.

In the US, ADHD affects many more people than bipolar. A 2014 study stated that 4.4% of adults in America had an ADHD diagnosis, compared to 1.4% with bipolar disorder.

Treatment options

If you suspect that yourself or someone you know has one of these conditions – or both – medical advice should be sought. A psychiatric referral may then follow, where the psychiatrist will gather information about symptoms, family history and general health details.

There is no cure for ADHD or bipolar disorder but there are treatments, such as psychotherapy and drugs, which can be used to alleviate the symptoms. Children with ADHD are known to improve over time when given treatment and bipolar disorder can also be managed well with therapies and medicines. In the case of bipolar disorder, however, episodes can become more severe and frequent over time.

Last Reviewed:
July 12, 2017
Last Updated:
October 24, 2017
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