Can You "Spot" Someone Who Is Bipolar?

Patient Expert

I've seen several questions posted here describing someone's behavior and then asking, "Is this person bipolar?" One was from a woman who described a co-worker as becoming extremely verbally abusive under stress, very creative, exploding at the least criticism, and always coming back and asking her to be his friend again. Others simply speak of mood swings - for example, periods of shutting others out.

I won't say it isn't possible to recognize when someone you know has bipolar disorder, but I believe you have to be fairly familiar with the possible symptoms to do it. A creative person with serious anger issues isn't necessarily bipolar but still needs help. Someone who shuts others out could have depression, an anxiety disorder, or something else.

I have occasionally been able to identify people who have bipolar disorder based on some symptoms that are common to mania and hypomania:

  • Physical restlessness, and
  • Nonstop talking, and
  • Flight of ideas - changing topics frequently while talking, with only the slightest (or no) connection between one topic and the next

Of course, even then I can't be 100% sure. There could be other issues, or another mental illness I don't know as much about, or other symptoms I haven't seen. Until I began studying bipolar disorder, I didn't know it was possible for people with this illness to have hallucinations or delusions during mania or depression (but not hypomania).

In one case, my friend who was so restless and talking my ear off, skipping from subject to subject, was also spending money as if she had an endless supply, giving extravagent parties, and taking on project after project. She had periods of depressed behavior. I learned later that she had, in fact, been diagnosed with bipolar. I used to beg her to go to her doctor because it was obvious her meds were not keeping her mania in check. In the end, I had to reduce drastically the time we spent together, because being around her bipolarity was making mine worse.

Mood swings along don't make a person bipolar. It's the severity of the mood swings and the symptoms associated with them that matter. Take a look at Do You Have Bipolar Disorder? and see whether the person you're wondering about fits any of the symptoms there.

In the case of the verbally abusive co-worker, it's my opinion that this issue needed to be addressed immediately rather than worrying about what might be causing it. Was the man's contribution to the company so vital that allowances had to be made for what was obviously unacceptable behavior? That seems unlikely. A reasonable step would be to tell the man that he was required to get professional help for anger management in order to continue to be employed.

In the case of a friend who is moody, some sensitivity will go a long way. Do you give her more space than she really wants? Will she say yes if you ask her to go out for ice cream or to the park or a movie? Does she need you to draw her out? If you've never seen her display any symptoms of mania or hypomania, don't jump to the conclusion that she has bipolar.

So if you have any reason to think someone you know may have bipolar disorder, the first thing to do is read as much as you can about the detailed symptoms. If you do see a number of those symptoms in your friend's behavior, find a non-threatening way to bring the subject up and suggest getting professional help.