Bipolar disorder, also formerly known as manic depression, is a mental condition marked by severe mood swings that include emotional highs, called mania or hypomania, and lows, called depression.
If left untreated, people who have bipolar disorder face risks for serious problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, suicidal tendencies, isolation and relationship troubles.
Many patients, however, miss crucial opportunities to manage their condition because they wait for a long time before disclosing their symptoms.
In a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry on July 25, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 27 studies involving 9,415 patients and found that bipolar patients wait six years on average from the time their symptoms start to show up before they get proper diagnosis.
Experts said that the lost time can result in more frequent and more severe episodes of the mental illness, which could be otherwise controlled by medications and other forms of intervention.
The researchers found that many of the patients in the study showed disruptive and distressing symptoms for a long time before they received proper treatment.
Study researcher Matthew Large, from the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that the stigma associated with mental illness and limited accessibility to existing treatments are some of the reasons that prevent people from getting early treatment.
He also acknowledged that diagnosis is challenging because the symptoms of the illness are also present in other mental illnesses. Bipolar disorder can also be masked by substance abuse.
The delay in diagnosis, Large said, is more pronounced in young people because parents and doctors tend to dismiss the symptoms as teenage moodiness.
"The diagnosis of bipolar disorder can also be missed because it relies on a detailed life history and corroborative information from carers and family, information that takes time and care to gather," Large said.
Large urged doctors to look more closely at the history of mood symptoms in patients, particularly those triggered by outside events such as travel and use of antidepressants. He also advised to take a closer look at individuals with known family history of the psychiatric disorder.
"What we should be looking at is what strategies we can develop to identify people who are very likely to go on to develop bipolar disorder and what benign treatments are there that can prevent it," Large said. "I think in the early stages we really need to concentrate more on non-pharmacological methods."