It is perfectly normal to have days where you feel low and days when we are on top of the world. The emotional rise and fall of life is part of the human condition. So how can you tell when your experiences are normal and when they’ve pushed into the extremes of depression or mania associated with bipolar disorder? Should you consider scheduling an appointment to be evaluated by a psychiatrist? Consider three basic rules of thumb: functioning, feeling and family.
FunctioningAre the problems you are experiencing interfering with your ability to function day to day? Have your issues isolated you from other people? Have your problems gotten you in trouble with the law? Do you have trouble attending work regularly or maintaining a job? What about family functionality? Do the demands of your difficulties consistently outweigh the needs of other members of the family?
FeelingDo you feel like there is something wrong with you – something more than the struggles everyone deals with? Do you feel like you are not getting to experience and enjoy life? Are you overwhelmed handling normal activities? Do you excessively ruminate – worry - over things other people don’t even think about?
FamilyIs there a history of mental illness in your family? Research conducted by Dr. Maier et al indicates that about 5 to 20% of those with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder will also develop bipolar disorder. These studies have also demonstrated that family members with both schizophrenia and unipolar depression are commonly found in the same family tree as those with bipolar disorder.
If you are having difficulty with daily functioning or if you are struggling to feel normal -- most especially over an extended period of time -- then an evaluation by a psychiatrist may be warranted. If you answer yes to either of the first two rules of thumb and you have a family history of mental illness, an unbiased, professional opinion could bring you some peace of mind.
Now, with all of this said, please be aware that even with all three rules of thumb checked off, you might not actually have bipolar disorder. A full medical and psychiatric evaluation conducted by a health care professional is needed to diagnosis bipolar disorder. (See How Is Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed for more details on this.)
Maier, W., Hofgen, B., Zobel, A. and Rietschel, M. (2005). Genetic models of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder:Overlapping inheritance or discrete genotypes? European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 255, 159–166.