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The Trouble With Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder

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The Trouble With Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder

Why finding out what’s wrong can take so long

You’d think getting a bipolar diagnosis would be easy. After all, the disease, characterized by dramatic mood swings and shifting energy levels, isn’t exactly subtle.

Despite what seem to be obvious signs someone suffers from bipolar disorder, it can be a long road to finding out what’s wrong. In fact, it takes, on average, five to 10 years to be diagnosed properly. There could be several reasons why this delay occurs:

It’s misdiagnosed as depression. People suffering from depression and those with bipolar disorder both have bouts of depression as part of their illness, with the major difference being that those with bipolar disorder also have periods of mania. Because people with bipolar disorder are more likely to see help when their mood is low, the distinction between the two diseases can be lost if your therapist has seen only your depressed side. For that reason, as many as two-thirds of those with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed with depression.
Bipolar disorder can take several forms. Some people don’t have full-blown mania. They have a milder version called hypomania. Others can experience depression and mania at the same time rather than separately.
It can be mistaken for other disorders. Mania and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can cause sufferers to be easily distracted and overactive. Severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can cause hallucinations and delusions.
There is no one test to diagnose it. If someone developed a blood test or brain scan that could definitively tell whether you have bipolar disorder, things would be simpler. But no such test exists. Instead, a trained professional evaluates symptoms and makes a judgment call about whether they meet the diagnostic criteria. The problem with that? Two different therapists can sometimes reach two different conclusions.
A delay in diagnosis can have serious consequences. The longer the mood disorder goes undiagnosed and untreated, the worse it may become. Scientists are researching better ways to diagnose the disorder. A 2013 study where researchers looked at using advanced MRI technique to distinguish bipolar brains from healthy brains shows promise, with more than 70 percent accuracy.

The good news is there are things you can do to ensure you get the right diagnosis sooner:

Don’t wait. See a professional as soon as you’re aware there’s a problem.
Find a mental health professional who specializes in treating mood disorders.
Be honest about your symptoms, past and present.
Bring your spouse or someone else close to you to the first appointment. He or she may have noticed changes in your behavior you didn’t see.
Don’t despair. With appropriate diagnosis and treatment, you can gain better control over your disorder.

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BHM Edit Staff