Understanding Mood Disorders

What are Mood Disorders?
Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad, but these feelings are usually fleeting and pass within a couple of hours, or days. A mood disorder is an illness that causes great distress and interferes with normal functioning. There is no single known cause of mood disorders. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.

The common forms of mood disorders include Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder.


Major depressive disorder, also called major depression, is characterised by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally. Some people may experience only a single episode within their lifetime, and others may have multiple episodes. MDD is a common and serious illness but highly treatable.

In the Singapore Mental Health Survey conducted in 2010, it was found that MDD was the most common mental illness in Singapore and that one in 16 Singapore residents (aged 18 and above) had MDD at some point in their life. The average time taken for persons with MDD to seek help from the onset of the illness is 4 years.


People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Symptoms may include:

  • Persistent sad or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities once pleasurable
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Persistent aches or pains that do not ease even with treatment
  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts


Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is characterised by alternating episodes of mania and depression and these episodes can vary in duration and intensity. It affects a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks. More than just a fleeting good or bad mood, the cycles of bipolar disorder last for days, weeks, or months.

During a manic episode, a person might impulsively quit a job, charge up huge amounts on credit cards, or feel energised after sleeping for a few hours. During a depressive episode, the same person might be too tired to get out of bed and be full of self-loathing and hopelessness, e.g. over being unemployed and in debt.

About 1.2% of adult Singaporeans have bipolar disorders and the average time taken for them to seek help is 9 years.


The symptoms of a manic episode include:

  • Feeling unusually “high” and optimistic or irritable
  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities or powers
  • Needing very little sleep, but feeling extremely energetic
  • Racing thoughts; jumping quickly from one idea to the next
  • Rapid speech
  • Acting recklessly without thinking about the consequences


Depression, even the most severe cases, can be effectively treated. The earlier the treatment can begin, the more effective it is. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatments for MDD may include medication such as antidepressants and/or psychotherapy.

Mood-stabilising medications are often used to treat bipolar disorder to balance the fluctuating emotions. Psychotherapy is also encouraged to help the person develop strategies to better manage the condition. In cases where medication or psychotherapy do not alleviate the person’s symptoms, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be considered.

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement
  • Learn more about mood disorders and the recovery process
  • Talk to the person and listen attentively
  • Invite the person out for positive distractions, such as walks, outings, and other activities
  • Never ignore comments about suicide. Work together with the helping professionals in reducing the risk of suicide.