The Life Cycle of Mood Disorders

Mood disorders most often surface by the age of 30, but they can occur at any age. Learn how depression and bipolar disorder progress and change over time.

Mood disorders most often surface by the age of 30, but they can occur at any age. An accurate diagnosis is often delayed. This is because symptoms are typically not recognized to be related to an illness. Instead, they are thought to be a reaction to life circumstances.


An untreated episode of depression usually lasts six to nine months. This period can be shortened with proper diagnosis and treatment. Most people with depression have their first episode before age 30. And they will have more than one episode in their lifetime. About 15% of depressed people have a form of depression that is resistant to current treatments.

Alcoholism or other drug use can make recovery from depression and bipolar disorder more difficult. A recent study showed that those who had never been alcoholics or no longer drink were twice as likely to recover from an episode of major depression than those who were still drinking. Unfortunately, many people drink alcohol to cope with depression. This slows their recovery time.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder usually begins at an earlier age than depression. It can even occur in childhood. But it is also an unpredictable disease that can emerge later in life.

Overall, men and women are equally likely to suffer from bipolar disorder. Women may be more likely to experience bipolar disorder later in life. One study showed that people who have bipolar disorder are likely to develop anxiety down the line.

Most people with bipolar disorder who recover completely from an episode have returning bouts of either depression or mania. The episodes can be separated by weeks, months, or years. The frequency and severity of episodes vary from person to person. Some people will go on to have many episodes. Others will have few episodes separated by years of normal health. There are many variations on how the illness proceeds over time. A recent study has found that people who have an episode of mania are as likely to later develop anxiety as they are depression1.

Some people with bipolar disorder can cycle between depressive and manic episodes. This can happen four or more times a year. This condition is known as rapid cycling and is particularly challenging to treat. Most people with bipolar disorder experience full recovery between episodes. However, some people have ongoing symptoms. Talk to a doctor to determine the best treatment plan for you or a loved one with a mood disorder.



  1. M. Olfson. Molecular Psychiatry, May, 2016.