The introduction of the DSM-V is an opportunity for the mental health community to prevent the common misdiagnosis of Bipolar Disorder

Diagnostic Disagreements in Bipolar Disorder: The Role of Substance Abuse Comorbidities


Substance abuse can produce symptoms similar to other psychiatric disorders, thus confusing the diagnostic picture. This paper attempts to elucidate how misdiagnosis in bipolar disorder might be explained by the presence of substance abuse comorbidities. The overlap of symptoms, limited information about symptom onset, and inexperienced clinicians can result in the misinterpretation of symptoms of substance abuse disorders for bipolar disorder. The present study found that the presence of a substance abuse comorbidity, the polarity of last episode (depressed, manic, mixed, not otherwise specified), and the total number of comorbidities affected the reliability of a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

1. Introduction

Clinically, the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder (BPD) during manic episodes are quite distinct and relatively easy to identify including elevated mood, rapid speech, agitation, and participation in high-risk behaviors [1]. However, during depressive, mixed, or hypomanic episodes, or when accompanied by psychotic features, BPD shares symptoms with major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse disorders, and several personality disorders and can therefore be difficult to distinguish.

It is this overlap in symptoms that makes the diagnostic process challenging [24]. In fact, misdiagnosis is common in BPD [5, 6]. For example, Zimmerman and colleagues [6] examined 700 psychiatric patients who reported that they had been previously diagnosed with BPD. Each person was reevaluated using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM Disorders (SCID for DSM-IV) [7]. They found that only 43.4% of patients who claimed they had been previously diagnosed with BPD met criteria based on the SCID. This is consistent with other studies [5, 8].

The consequences of an incorrect diagnosis are apparent. Treatment decisions are based on diagnosis and, therefore, inadequate and/or incorrect pharmacological treatments might be applied which lead to unpleasant side effects without the benefit of symptom reduction [9]. These consequences are costly with regard to human suffering and health care service utilization [3].

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