Self Improvement Thursday: What is the difference between Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder?

This is the question a good friend asked me over coffee today.  Don't ask me how we got on to that topic.  We were initially talking about the weather.  You know how conversations between friends take unpredictable twists and turns?

I gave her the best explanation I could and commented that I had been asked this question quite a few times.  It got me wondering whether you might have wondered this too?  I thought this might be a good place to answer the question again.  So here goes...

Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder are both forms of mental illness but they are different and quite distinct.  

Schizophrenia is marked by a range of unusual behaviour that can be terribly disruptive to the lives of people who have it as well as the people in their lives.  It is slightly less common than Bipolar Disorder, occurring in under one percent of the population.  The major symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Confused thinking.  People with schizophrenia often experience episodes of psychosis during which everyday thoughts and the ability to make sense of events and interactions become almost impossible.  Things just don't join up and they find it difficult to function normally during these periods. 
  • Delusions.  These are false beliefs or distortions of reality that can occur for those who experience schizophrenia.  As a result their behaviour can seem very odd or bizarre to others even it makes sense to them in the context of the reality they are experiencing. Examples might include feelings of persecution or a belief that they are being tormented or spied on, leading to hiding in unusual places, refusing to go near certain locations or reporting concerns about people being 'out to get them' or following or pursuing them.   
  • Hallucinations. When hallucinating, a person sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes something that is not actually there. For those experiencing schizophrenia the hallucination is often of disembodied voices which no one else can hear. These voices can be very negative and distressing.

Schizophrenia can be experienced in mild through to severe forms.  Its onset is often in a person's late teens or early 20s and it can be very scary.  Medication is used to treat the symptoms of the disease and although there is no cure many people who experience schizophrenia lead normal, productive lives.

 Contrary to popular belief schizophrenia has nothing to do with having 'multiple personalities' or a 'split personality'. This is a misunderstanding that may have resulted from the term 'schizophrenia' which in its original Greek form was translated to 'split mind'.  The myth has been perpetuated by Hollywood over the years and the term 'schizophrenic' is still often used (wrongly) in general conversation to describe something that is split or divided.

I love this brilliant and entertaining explanation of Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) from Crash Course.

Bipolar Disorder is slightly more common than schizophrenia, occurring in about one percent of the Australian population.  Bipolar Disorder was previously known as Manic Depression. Those suffering from Bipolar Disorder experience severe mood swings from exceptionally 'high' or elated to terribly 'low' or deeply depressed.

In an extreme form a person who suffers from Bipolar Disorder may experience episodes of psychosis during which they lose touch with reality and may seem to act in a very odd or bizarre manner.  This can be similar to the psychosis experienced with schizophrenia.

The primary symptoms of Bipolar Disorder are:

  • Mania.  A person experiencing mania appears very high, overexcited and reckless.  He might imagine that he is more important or influential than he is and he might spend money excessively (often money he doesn't have) or engage in highly risky or reckless behaviour, believing he is invincible.  
  • Mania's polar opposite (hence the name Bipolar); depression.  Following the high and heightened energy of an episode of mania, a person with Bipolar may then crash into an episode of significant depression, during which they may have little or no energy, find it difficult to concentrate, stop engaging in usual activities and feel overwhelmingly helpless and hopeless.

Not everyone with Bipolar Disorder will experience this same pattern of highs and lows.  Some people experience mostly low periods and some mostly highs. 

The symptoms of Bipolar Disorder can be often be treated quite effectively through a combination of medication, therapy and community support.  Crash Course's episode below will give you more insight.

If you have concerns about your own or a loved one's emotional or mental state I encourage you to talk to someone about it.  Your GP is a great first port of call.  You can also find out more via Sane Australia's web site.  It has some great fact sheets and other resources.  If it is urgent, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you'd like to know more about mental health issues or types of mental illness please let me know.