UK Experts Call For Better, Earlier Diagnois of Bipolar Disorder


It’s only human to try to self-medicate when you are ill. When it’s a physical illness, many sufferers try various over-the-counter medications rather than visit a physician. When it’s a mental disorder, however, often sufferers turn to alcohol or different substances to cope, as researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, and the NIHR have discovered.

This means of dealing with mental disorders can cause delays in seeking help, preventing patients from receiving effective treatment. As with all conditions, mental or physical, early diagnosis and prompt treatment is key to effectively helping those suffering from bipolar disorder.

Lag time between diagnosis and treatment

A recent article in Medical Press states that it can take up to 10 years from first suffering symptoms for a person with bipolar disorder to receive specialist medical health care. The researchers also affirm that while most indivduals are diagnosed within two months of their first severe symptoms, those with alcohol or substance misuse disorder can take two to five years (or more) to be properly diagnosed. That makes a significant impact upon the lives of the patient and their families. 

Creating better strategies for diagnosis

In the article, Dr Rashmi Patel from the Department of Psychosis Studies at the IoPPN, King’s College London, stated, “Our findings suggest that bipolar disorder could be missed in certain groups of people, such as those who misuse alcohol or illicit substances, leading to substantially longer delays in receiving effective treatment. We need to develop better strategies to identify bipolar disorder, perhaps through specialised early intervention services, in order to offer appropriate treatment sooner. This is particularly important because treatments are more effective if they are given sooner rather than later.”

Self-medicating complicates diagnosis

When patients self-medicate by using alcohol or drugs, it may be more difficult to establish whether they suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse or bipolar disorder. Quite often, as symptoms increase in severity, this may be the means by which individuals deal with the symptoms. The prior and continuing use of these substances may, in fact, cause physicians to not consider a diagnosis of either bipolar disorder or a dual diagnosis of both disorders (which is the term for those suffering from mental illness who also misuse alcohol or illicit drugs). This may cause the use of these substances to aggravate and worsen the initial symptoms of mental illness, making it more difficult to effectively treat patients.

Dr. Patel states that there is a need of further research for treatment of patients with a dual diagnosis. The UK treatment guidelines stress the need for prompt recognition and treatment of both substance and alcohol abuse and mental disorders, but obviously this lack of knowledge is causing delays in sufferers’ proper diagnosis and treatment.