Most of us have become used to specialized blood tests or other laboratory measures to help our doctors make an accurate diagnosis. However, most lab tests or imaging tests are not useful in diagnosing bipolar disorder. In fact, the most important diagnostic tool may be talking openly with the doctor about your mood swings, behaviors, and lifestyle habits.
What does a doctor need to know to diagnose bipolar disorder?
A bipolar disorder diagnosis is made only by taking careful note of symptoms, including their severity, length, and frequency. "Mood swings" from day to day or moment to moment do not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Rather, the diagnosis hinges on having periods of unusual elevation or irritability in mood that are coupled with increases in energy, sleeplessness, and fast thinking or speech. The patient’s symptoms are fully assessed using specific criteria from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-V.
In making the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the psychiatrist or other mental health expert will ask you questions about your personal and family history of mental illness and bipolar disorder or other mood disorders. Because bipolar disorder sometimes has a genetic component, family history can be helpful in making a diagnosis. (Most people with bipolar disorder, however, do not have a family history of bipolar disorder.)
Also, the doctor will ask detailed questions about your bipolar symptoms. Other questions may focus on reasoning, memory, ability to express yourself, and ability to maintain relationships.