A new survey reveals 4 out of 5 of people with bipolar struggle to get a correct diagnosis – with the average delay in diagnosis a staggering 13 years.
The survey of 706 people affected by bipolar was carried out by Bipolar UK, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Bipolar Scotland to mark the first ever National Bipolar Awareness Day (27 June).
On average, respondents said they started to experience symptoms of bipolar disorder at the age of 23, with 50% reporting their first symptoms occurred between 11 and 20 years of age. While 15% were diagnosed promptly, 85% had difficulty in getting the right diagnosis – the majority of whom were wrongly diagnosed with depression.
The average wait for the right diagnosis was 13.2 years. For those who had a delayed diagnosis, 71% felt their symptoms had been made worse by being given inappropriate treatments, such as antidepressants or sleeping pills.
Alison Cairns, Chief Executive of Bipolar Scotland, said: “The results of the survey reflect the experiences of our members. There are many reasons for the delay in diagnosis, not least that people are more likely to visit a GP when depressed and not reveal the extent of their mood swings. Highlighting these issues can only have a positive effect.”
Suzanne Hudson, Chief Executive of Bipolar UK, said: “A delay of this length has a significant impact for individuals and families with sometimes devastating consequences as bipolar has the highest risk of suicide of any psychiatric illness. All of us – individuals concerned about their health, relatives, friends, medical professionals and the media – need to work together to ensure this length of time is reduced. If you are concerned you might have bipolar, go to www.bipolaruk.org.uk and complete the mood scale we provide before discussing it with your doctor: it will give you both a better understanding of your mood swings over time. If possible, speak to a loved one or an organisation like Bipolar UK or Bipolar Scotland for support.”
The organisations also carried out a separate survey of 460 mental health professionals, including psychiatrists. This showed areas of good practice, with 89% saying they screened people who show symptoms of depression for a history of mania as well. However, 43% said they rarely or never spoke to a relative or carer of the person to obtain a corroborative history. In addition, over half (51%) said they would find a straightforward screening tool for bipolar disorder helpful in their day-to-day clinical practice.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Danny Smith said: “This survey is consistent with several research studies which have highlighted that getting the diagnosis right in the early stages of bipolar disorder can be very challenging. Many people with bipolar disorder who responded to the survey felt that GPs and other medical professionals might need more support in carrying out more detailed assessments to identify bipolar depression.”
Over half the clinicians (53%) said they felt recent media coverage of bipolar disorder had been helpful or very helpful in increasing public awareness and understanding of the illness.
TV presenter Bill Oddie, who has spoken about his personal experience of bipolar and is supporting National Bipolar Awareness Day, said: “Over ten years to arrive at a correct diagnosis! Really? I can believe it. It happened to me and it’s happening to others right now. It could be fatal.”