By Michael Lardon, M.D.

What are mood disorders?

Mood disorders are very common and, in fact, some studies suggest that each individual has up to a 20% chance to develop a mood disorder in his or her life. Mood disorders come in two common variations. Generally individuals will either have a depressive disorder or a bipolar disorder.

What is depression?

Depression is characterized by periods of sadness resulting in changes in appetite or sleep, irritability, anger, worry, agitation, loss of energy, and an inability to concentrate among other symptoms. Depression can include all or just some of these symptoms and they may either be mild or very severe.

What is bipolar (or manic-depression)?

Bipolar disorders (previously known as manic depression) are marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behavior. Bipolar disorders can be mild (type 2) or severe (type 1).

Are mood disorders a sign of weakness?

It is of paramount importance for individuals to know that if they have a bipolar or a depressive disorder that it is not a character flaw or any sign of personal weakness. Today we have strong evidence that suggests that there is not only a strong biologic basis to these disorders, but they also have a genetic etiology. The basic idea is that there are several neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate mood – serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and others – which become dysregulated. When these neurotransmitters are in a state of dysregulation, the individual will experience significant changes in their mood, thoughts, sleep patterns, and behavior.

What is a good way to think about depression?

I like to imagine the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. It’s like one big traffic jam, where no-one is going anywhere fast. When we are depressed the neurotransmitters systems are not firing properly and they could be considered in a big traffic jam. When the brain is functioning well, the traffic flows normally and feels much better.

What is a good way to think about Mania?

Conversely, when the individual becomes manic, imagine that the cars on the freeway are running wild, disregarding traffic rules and speed limits. This biological chaos will cause the individual to do things that they normally would not do. Often times, people engage in destructive behavior including drinking, gambling, and spending sprees. This chaos can destroy both personal and professional and can be quite dangerous for the individual.

Are there good treatments?

Today we have very good treatment for both of these types of mood disorders. The typical medicines that are used include antidepressants and mood stabilizers. It is important for the individual to know that these medicines are not addictive and if your mood is already in the normal range they should not alter it. Mood disorders are very treatable.

What do the medicines do?

In fact another good metaphor is to think of a thermostat that should be kept at 72 degrees, the normal mood. If we are manic the temperature is too high and if we are depressed the temperature is too low. The medicines, if used correctly, only take the temperature towards the desired 72 degree set point. If your mood is normal they do not change the system. The only change the system if the brain neurotransmitters are to high or low (dysregulated). They do not take a normal mood and make that individual high. In fact they do not have any intoxicating or euphoric properties like those of addictive medicines. It is also important to know that psychotherapy and exercise help mood immensely. Both of these non-medicine interventions also cause brain chemistry to normalize.

If you want to know more about mood disorders please see the Sports Illustrated article titled “Prisoners of Depression” on our Media Center. If you want to learn more go to the National Institute of Mental Health website ( or see your local mental health expert.