Bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose.
The average bipolar patient will see three mental health professionals before getting the right diagnosis. In fact, one-third of bipolar patients will not be diagnosed with the disorder until more than 10 years after they first seek treatment.
There is a lot of similarity between the symptoms of bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, but that isn’t the only reason why it is so difficult to diagnose. Here are some of the complicating factors:
The patient only talks about depression – as bipolar disorder is a condition that has periods of depression alternating with manic episodes, many patients present when they are depressed. This is particularly true when a patient seeks treatment for themselves. Manic patients feel good or at least energized and are unlikely to believe that anything is wrong. Either they feel terrific, or they are in a heightened “bad” mood – and likely to blame that on other people or life circumstances. Consequently when they first seek treatment – they only profess to the depression as that is most bothersome.
Bipolar disorder looks like anxiety – in actuality, many, if not most bipolar patients also have some type of anxiety disorder. Consequently it may be very difficult for mental health professional to root out bipolar disorder. If patients are seen as agitated, hyperactive or fidgety, they may be only asked about anxiety or given a self-rating scale for anxiety. This would immediately lead the practitioner to diagnose an anxiety disorder – unless careful investigations were done.
Substance abuse can be complicating the issue – many bipolar patients spend years self-treating with substances of abuse. This includes prescription medications, recreational drugs and alcohol. There is not any particular drug that is more often abused by bipolar people as a whole – some will choose alcohol, some will prefer stimulants, some will choose pain medications – all of which will mask the symptoms to some extent. In some cases, the substance abuse appears to be more problematic than anything else and in cases of addiction; the substance abuse must be treated before an accurate evaluation can occur.
Denial is very common – Denial is a nice way of saying dishonesty. That would be lying. This sounds very harsh but in many cases, bipolar patients will not be honest about difficulties that they have had. It may be subconscious dishonesty in that they, themselves do not really know what the problem is. Lack of awareness is common but outright denial is also common. Many bipolar patients absolutely refuse to accept the diagnosis when it is first presented – even after years of not being treated properly. Oddly, this may make it more likely that the practitioner believes that the patient has bipolar disorder but such outright denial delays treatment.
These are just a few of the reasons why bipolar disorder is so difficult to pin down and, unfortunately, delayed treatment can have huge life implications. Bipolar disorder is one of the riskiest psychiatric illnesses to have and can have severe consequences for the patient who is not properly diagnosed and medicated – including job losses, family disturbance, institutionalization, jail and even death.
Bipolar disorder affects not only the patient himself – but family and loved ones as well.