Bipolar disorder is characterized by a cycling from depression to mania, and back again over time (hence the reason it used to be called manic depression, because it includes both mania and depression). One of the commonly asked questions we get here is, “How long does a typical bipolar episode last?”
The answer has traditionally been, “Well, it varies considerably from person to person. Some may have rapid cycling bipolar disorder where that person can cycle back and forth between depression and mania in the course of a day or multiple times a week. Others may be stuck in one mood or the other for weeks or months at a time.”
New research (Solomon et al., 2010) published in The Archives of General Psychiatry sheds a little more empirical light onto this question.
In a study of 219 patients with bipolar I disorder (the kind of bipolar disorder with full-blown manic episodes), researchers asked patients to fill out an evaluation every 6 months for five years. The evaluation survey asked a number of questions to determine the length, type and severity of the person’s mood episodes.
They discovered that for patients with Bipolar I disorder, the median duration for any type of mood episode — either mania or depression — was 13 weeks.
They also found that “more than 75% of the subjects recovered from their mood episodes within 1 year of onset. The probability of recovery was significantly less for an episode with severe onset” and for those who had a greater number of years spent ill with a mood episode.
The researchers also discovered that manic episodes or mild depressive episodes were easier to recover from than severe depressive episodes for people with Bipolar I disorder in this study. They also found that those who have a cycling episode — switching from depression to mania or vice-a-versa without an intervening period of recovery — fared worse.
So there you have it. The average length of time someone with Bipolar I disorder spends either depressed or manic is about 13 weeks. Of course, as always, your mileage may vary and individual differences will mean that very few people will actually have this exact average. But it’s a good, rough yardstick in which to measure your own mood episode lengths.
Solomon, DA, Andrew C. Leon; William H. Coryell; Jean Endicott; Chunshan Li; Jess G. Fiedorowicz; Lara Boyken; Martin B. Keller. (2010). Arch Gen Psychiatry — Abstract: Longitudinal Course of Bipolar I Disorder: Duration of Mood Episodes. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 67, 339-347.