Bipolar disorder is considered one of the most complicated mental disorders of them all. As the name suggests it can affect you at both ends of the mental health spectrum. This diversity of symptoms creates any number of problems. Bipolar disorder, because of the two extremes, can be very difficult to diagnose. Often, the health professional is only consulted about one of these extremes. The diagnosis is then based on inaccurate (incomplete) information. Treatment prescribed for depression can flip you into hypomania or even into a full manic episode.
Bipolar symptoms are often similar to the symptoms of other mental disorders. This does not only include unipolar mania or unipolar depression. A number of symptoms for a high or a low can also be symptoms of a mental disorder totally unrelated to bipolar disorder. In fact bipolar disorder is not a mental disorder at all. Rather, it is a spectrum of mood disorders. Each one has a separate set of criteria for the appropriate diagnosis to apply.
One basic constant is a fluctuation of moods between high and low. Generally there is a cycle or pattern each person follows within their particular category of bipolar disorder. It is this pattern which leads to the specific diagnosis of the disorder. Most people cycle from high to low. Having completed their cycle there is often a period where no bipolar symptoms, or episodes, are present. This period can vary in length from hours to months or even years.
There are two major factors which lead to a specific diagnosis of bipolar disorder. One is the extent of the highs and the lows. The second is the rate of the cycling between the highs and the lows. A correct diagnosis is very important in ensuring that a successful treatment can be prescribed. The first thing an accurate diagnosis achieves is providing information as to what the next stage of the cycling is likely to be. This greatly enhances the chance of a successful treatment being prescribed.
A diagnosis of bipolar type 1, (often considered the most severe bipolar diagnosis) indicates cycling between extreme mania and deep depression. Next in line is bipolar type 2. Here the high is a hypomanic episode. This is a level short of a full manic episode. It then leads onto a depression. This depression can be very severe and long-lasting. Another possible diagnosis is cycothymaic's disorder. Here the highs and lows are not particularly severe. This can lead difficulties in diagnosing it.
It is not unusual for a person with cycothymaic's disorder not to seek treatment. They simply do not realize that they are different. They assume that their experience of mood-swing is no different from anyone else. This can result in them going through life experiencing mood-swing somewhat greater than they need to.
As I mentioned earlier the second factor relevant in diagnosing bipolar disorder is the rate of cycling between highs and lows. If a person afflicted with the disorder completes four cycles in a year the diagnosis is rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Some people cycle considerably more than this. The diagnosis then becomes extremely rapidly cycling bipolar disorder.
I hope that this rather simplistic explanation of bipolar disorder serves to illustrate exactly how complicated bipolar disorder really is. If a health professional is to correctly diagnose which mood disorder applies excellent communication is needed between both parties. The advantage of a correct diagnosis is that a successful treatment can be prescribed much easier and more often.