Beyond DSM symptoms: Behavioral clues to diagnosing bipolar II disorder

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The diagnosis of bipolar II disorder is one of the most common challenges in psychiatric practice. Bipolar II disorder is frequently misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder (MDD) because symptoms of transient hypomanic episodes are either insufficiently probed or are rather vague. However, there are many valuable biographical clues that can expedite the diagnosis of bipolar II disorder.

The late Hagop S. Akiskal, MD, who passed away in January 2021, was an internationally recognized expert in mood disorders, and a dear friend for decades. He was a keen observer of human behavior who delved into the “life stories” of patients seeking help for depression. By thinking “outside the DSM box,” Dr. Akiskal was the first to recognize and codify a variety of behavioral and biographical clues for the bipolar spectrum (of which he was a pioneer) in patients presenting with a chief complaint of depression. He proposed a colorful set of behavioral stigmata in most patients with bipolar II disorder by carefully canvassing the life experiences of the patients he treated in the mood disorder clinic he established in the 1970s, which is believed to have been the first mood specialty clinic in the country.

Based on a review of >1,000 patients in his clinic who presented with depressive symptoms and were ultimately diagnosed as bipolar II disorder, Dr. Akiskal highlighted what he labeled as “behavioral activation, flamboyance and extravagance” among those patients. He referred to the cluster of those behaviors as “the soft spectrum” of bipolar disorder, which manifests in a set of distinctive behaviors in addition to depressive symptoms. He found that research tools such as the DSM-based Structured Clinical Interview often fail and frequently lead to a misdiagnosis of bipolar II disorder as MDD. This often condemns the patient to multiple failed trials of antidepressant monotherapy, and a delay in improvement, thus increasing the risk of job loss, disrupted relationships, and even suicide.

Over 3 decades, Dr. Akiskal developed the Mood Clinic Data Questionnaire (MCDQ) to systematize unstructured observations of patients presenting with a chief complaint of depression. His tool expedites the diagnosis of bipolar II disorder by understanding the patient as an individual, revealing personal and behavioral features consistent with what he labeled as episodic “hyperthymia” within the context of recurrent depression. This “social and behavioral phenotype,” as Dr. Akiskal called it, is rarely observed among patients with MDD.

By examining many patients with bipolar II disorder, Dr. Akiskal identified several “triads” of behavioral traits in the patients’ biographical history and in some of their close blood relatives as well. He also noticed that temperamentally, patients with bipolar II disorder thrive on “activity” and lovingly referred to themselves as “activity junkies.” Some of them may qualify as workaholics.

Biographical features that suggest bipolar II disorder

Here is a summary of the unique biographical features of patients with bipolar II disorder that Dr. Akiskal described:

Multilingual. Speaking ≥3 languages is unusual among individuals born in the United States, but often encountered among those with bipolar II disorder.

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