Going through a mental health struggle is difficult enough on its own, but it's even more frustrating when you're misdiagnosed or treating the wrong issue, especially when it comes to mood disorders. Although they are quite different illnesses, there are some subtle differences between bipolar disorder and depression that mean they can be confused for each other. Knowing what differentiates the two can help people get the right treatment they need.
Since one hallmark of bipolar disorder is depressive periods, it's not uncommon for people to miss the signs and treat it as depression instead. In fact, nearly seven out of 10 people with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed at least once, according to 2006 research published in the journal Psychiatry, with women more likely to be misdiagnosed than men.
"It’s common for people to confuse bipolar disorder and depression in someone because bipolar disorder is the combination of depression and mania or hypomania, which can present separately or together," says Dr. Laurel Steinberg, PhD, a psychotherapist and adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, over email. "If someone sees a person in a purely depressed phase of bipolar disorder, there would be no evidence that the person experiences mania other times."
If you're experiencing depressive symptoms but aren't sure which disorder you might have, here are some ways to tell the difference as you're talking with your doctor. They may seem subtle, but they matter.