Differential diagnosis of bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder

R. M. Hirschfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

86 Scopus citations


Background Patients with bipolar disorder spend approximately half of their lives symptomatic and the majority of that time suffering from symptoms of depression, which complicates the accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Methods Challenges in the differential diagnosis of bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder are reviewed, and the clinical utility of several screening instruments is evaluated.

Results The estimated lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder (i.e., unipolar depression) is over 3 and one-half times that of bipolar spectrum disorders. The clinical presentation of a major depressive episode in a bipolar disorder patient does not differ substantially from that of a patient with major depressive disorder (unipolar depression). Therefore, it is not surprising that without proper screening and comprehensive evaluation many patients with bipolar disorder may be misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder (unipolar depression). In general, antidepressants have demonstrated little or no efficacy for depressive episodes associated with bipolar disorder, and treatment guidelines recommend using antidepressants only as an adjunct to mood stabilizers for patients with bipolar disorder. Thus, correct identification of bipolar disorder among patients who present with depression is critical for providing appropriate treatment and improving patient outcomes.

Limitations Clinical characteristics indicative of bipolar disorder versus major depressive disorder identified in this review are based on group differences and may not apply to each individual patient.

Conclusion The overview of demographic and clinical characteristics provided by this review may help medical professionals distinguish between major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Several validated, easily administered screening instruments are available and can greatly improve the recognition of bipolar disorder in patients with depression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S12-S16
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Diagnosis
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Screening

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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