Bipolar misdiagnoses are common. This may be because bipolar disorder shares symptoms with other conditions.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder can overlap with other mental health conditions. Because of this, it’s easy to mistake bipolar disorder for another condition, and vice versa. As such, bipolar disorder might be misdiagnosed.
Bipolar misdiagnosis is relatively common. A 2018 review found that up to 40% of people with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed.
Similarly, it’s possible to get a diagnosis of bipolar disorder when you actually have a different mental health condition, such as depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
It’s not always easy to tell whether bipolar disorder has been misdiagnosed or missed.
If you’ve been misdiagnosed, you might find that:
- you’re making little to no progress with your current treatment plan (in other words, your medication or therapy doesn’t seem to be working)
- your symptoms have worsened since you began treatment
- you have symptoms that aren’t explained by your current diagnosis
- you don’t experience the typical symptoms associated with your diagnosis
If you suspect you’ve had a misdiagnosis, speak with your treatment team. If you’d like, you can get a second opinion from another healthcare professional.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder are similar to the symptoms of other conditions. It’s possible for a clinician to see certain symptoms of bipolar disorder and misinterpret it as another condition (or vice versa).
For example, bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of depression. A mental health professional might diagnose someone with depression based on this symptom. According to a 2018 review, bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed as depression.
People with bipolar disorder may have comorbidities. This means that they have other mental health conditions as well as bipolar disorder at the same time.
In cases where someone has multiple disorders, it’s possible for a healthcare practitioner to diagnose one disorder and miss the other condition.
Difficulty seeking help
People with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help during depressive phases, not during manic phases. It’s not always easy to recognize the manic phase as problematic — many people feel good during these episodes, so they might not realize they need help.
Even when people seek help, there’s a chance that they won’t receive it. A lack of access to healthcare services can make it difficult to get the correct diagnosis.
Bias and discrimination in medical settings can play a role, too. According to
Bipolar disorder and major depression
Bipolar disorder is commonly misdiagnosed as major depression because depressive episodes share symptoms with major depression.
These symptoms include:
- persistent feelings of sadness, numbness, and lethargy
- a loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- sleeping more or less than usual
- changes in appetite and weight
The depressive episode is usually the first episode you experience with bipolar disorder: if you seek treatment before experiencing a manic episode, your symptoms may be interpreted as major depression.
Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
Some people with bipolar disorder experience psychosis, especially during a manic episode. An older 2000 study notes that 50% of people with bipolar disorder experience psychosis. As a result, people with bipolar disorder may be diagnosed with schizophrenia and vice versa.
Psychosis can include:
- incoherent or irrational thoughts
- speech that sounds jumbled or irrational
- lack of awareness
A 2018 study looked at people who had bipolar I disorder with psychotic features. It found that
Bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
During manic episodes, you might experience symptoms that are similar to GAD.
- difficulty sleeping
Recent research suggests that people with GAD may also have unstable or overreactive moods. This might be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD)
People with BPD can experience symptoms that are similar to that of bipolar disorder. This overlap can lead to misdiagnosis. For instance, one study found that
The overlapping symptoms include:
- intense emotions
- impulsivity behavior
- suicidal thoughts or actions
Additionally, people with BPD might experience sudden changes in mood, beliefs, or relationships. This sudden change might be misinterpreted as them entering or exiting a depressive or manic episode.
Mental health misdiagnoses can be harmful. Without a proper diagnosis, people might find it difficult to get the treatment they truly need. Their condition might worsen while they’re being treated for a disorder they don’t have.
This experience can also be frustrating. If you’re making little to no progress with your current treatment plan, you may feel demotivated.
Additionally, being given the wrong mental health medication can worsen your symptoms. For example, some antidepressants can worsen your manic episodes.
Similarly, bipolar medication can have side effects. For example, lithium can cause nausea and vomiting. These side effects can be worth it if you’re benefitting from the medication. But if you were incorrectly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it might take a toll on your body without helping you feel better.
If you think you have been misdiagnosed, consider speaking with a mental health care professional.
You might want to start by approaching your current treatment team (for example, your general practitioner, therapist, or psychiatrist). Be sure to:
- explain why you think you’ve been misdiagnosed
- give details of your personal medical history
- give details of your family medical history
- describe any signs of bipolar misdiagnosis that you have noticed
It can be helpful to write out the details beforehand so that you don’t forget any important information.
If you don’t feel that your treatment team is taking your concerns seriously, you can reach out to other professionals for a second opinion. Consider speaking with a mental healthcare professional who’s experienced in working with people who have bipolar disorder.
Because bipolar disorder shares symptoms with other mental health conditions, it may be misdiagnosed. A common sign of a bipolar misdiagnosis is that you make little to no progress with your current treatment.
If you think you’ve been misdiagnosed or noticed signs of a bipolar misdiagnosis, consider speaking with your treatment team or getting a second opinion from another mental health professional.