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Treating Bipolar Disorder

Treatment can help most people with bipolar disorder. Almost all people with bipolar disorder—even those with severe forms—can stabilize their mood swings through the use of medication.

Treatment for bipolar disorder falls into three categories:

Acute treatment suppresses current symptoms and continues until remission, which occurs when the symptoms are diminished for a period of time.

Continuation treatment prevents a return of symptoms from the same episode.

Maintenance treatment prevents a recurrence of symptoms. The risks of long-term medication use must be weighed against the risk of getting sick again (relapse).

The types of treatment that are commonly used for bipolar disorder include:

You can monitor your own treatment progress by keeping a daily mood chart. This will enable you to keep track of your moods, sleep patterns, medication and side effects, and activities. Also keep track of why you think changes occur, for example poor night’s sleep or working late.

What doesn’t work

The following strategies are ineffective and should be avoided:

  • Using intoxicants, such as alcohol, to feel better or get to sleep
  • Telling a family member to snap out of it or get back to their old self
  • Shaming a person for not meeting obligations and responsibilities

Who treats bipolar disorder?

Arranging for professional help does work. Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses and licensed clinical social workers are skilled in the diagnosis of mental disorders; people who believe they have a mood disorder should seek them out.

People who are experiencing life-threatening symptoms, such as life-endangering impulsive behavior (e.g., substance abuse, promiscuity or aggressiveness) or psychotic symptoms (e.g., hallucinations or delusions), as well as anyone who is severely suicidal, should be evaluated by a physician. Depending on the level of potential harm to self or others, they should go to an emergency room. Doctors there often will refer them to a psychiatrist for further treatment. In some cases, hospitalization in a psychiatric facility is a standard approach.


With treatment, the outlook for bipolar disorder is favorable. Most people respond to a medication and or combination of medications. Approximately 50 percent of people will respond to lithium alone. An additional 20 to 30 percent will respond to another medication or combination of medications. Ten to 20 percent will have chronic (unresolved) mood symptoms despite treatment. Approximately 10 percent of bipolar patients will be very difficult to treat and have frequent episodes with little response to treatment. On average, a person is free of symptoms for about five years between the first and second episodes. As time goes on, the interval between episodes may shorten, especially in cases in which treatment is discontinued too soon. It is estimated that a person with bipolar disorder will have an average of eight to nine mood episodes during his or her lifetime.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

Jane Framingham, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Framingham, J. (2020). Treating Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.