ADHD vs Bipolar. Can Bipolar Disorder Be Misdiagnosed as ADHD?

A representation of a girl suffering from a bipolar disorde

Many symptoms of ADHD and bipolar disorder may overlap, often making it difficult for individuals to be accurately diagnosed. Mental health professionals can help with this by looking at possible triggers, duration of symptoms and other factors that can lead to an accurate diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, or both.

Bipolar vs ADHD

Bipolar disorder and ADHD are two relatively common disorders. Individuals with bipolar disorder makes up 4.4% of the American population, while ADHD makes up almost 6% of the population. They often occur together making it difficult to tell whether someone may be experiencing ADHD, bipolar, or both.

Why is it challenging to determine whether someone has ADHD, bipolar disorder, or is experiencing both conditions?

It may be difficult to determine whether someone is dealing with ADHD, bipolar disorder, or both. This is due to the many similar symptoms that each disorder can present with. Though this is the main reason, there are key differences that lead to determining an accurate diagnosis. Diagnosis of ADHD or bipolar requires strict attention to causes of the disorders, length of symptoms, childhood history, and co-occurring disorders.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder and is one of the most common presenting disorders that starts in childhood. It consists of trouble controlling impulsive behaviors, trouble concentrating, or they may be hyperactive. Other symptoms of ADHD include problems organizing, daydreaming, forgetfulness, and difficulty getting along with others.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a disorder that causes severe mood swings that include emotional highs and low depressive states. Typically, there are three main categories of mood swings including hypomania, mania, and depressive episodes. Hypomania is a less intense version of mania that creates euphoria leading to lack of sleep, grandiosity, racing thoughts, and feeling abnormally upbeat. Depressive episodes often lead to feeling hopeless, suicidal, weight loss/gain, lack of concentration and depressed mood. 

ADHD Symptoms vs Bipolar Symptoms

Though bipolar disorder and ADHD have many similarities related to presenting symptoms leading to the difficulty in diagnosis, the two disorders also have many differences. These key differences are what lead to accurate diagnoses.

A therapy session

The Differences Between Bipolar and ADHD 

  • Onset Diagnosis: Bipolar is mainly diagnosed as an older adolescent or young adult while ADHD often presents as a child between ages 5 and 7.
  • Symptom Duration & Frequency: ADHD presents symptoms on an ongoing basis wheras bipolar presents in episodes.
  • Causes: Though both ADHD and bipolar are thought to have genetic components, environmental components may play a larger role in causing or exacerbating symptoms of ADHD whereas bipolar is thought to be a difference in brain functioning and chemical imbalances.

Bipolar Disorder and ADHD Similarities 

  • Symptoms including hyperactivity and restless behaviors, being easily distracted, poor concentration, racing thoughts, impulsivity
  • Genetics are thought to play a role in the development of ADHD and bipolar disorder
  • There are different types of each disorder chategorized by how individuals present with the disorder (bipolar I, bipolar II, predominantly inattentive, predominately attentive.

Can you have ADHD and bipolar?

Yes, the rate of individuals with comorbid ADHD and bipolar is significant. According to a 2021 analysis of several studies, 1 in 6 patients with bipolar disorder also have ADHD, and 1 in 13 patients with ADHD also have bipolar disorder. There is a significant number of individuals who are diagnosed with one disorder due to symptomatology of another. Bipolar disorder has been shown to be 11x more likely to be diagnosed in individuals who have been previously diagnosed with ADHD than those who have no prior diagnosis. Genetic factors related to ADHD and manic symptoms are between 25 and 42 percent This could mean there is a biological relation between bipolar and ADHD. Often, individuals who experience both ADHD and bipolar disorder have more severe symptoms than an individual who experiences only one of the two.

Can bipolar be misdiagnosed as ADHD and vice versa?

Yes, bipolar disorder and ADHD can be misdiagnosed for each other. It is quite common for this to happen due to the number of similar symptoms that present with each disorder. Symptomatology and early diagnosis or signs of each may be another reason why bipolar and ADHD are misdiagnosed for each other. If there is family history of bipolar or ADHD, physicians or therapists may lean more toward one due to the hereditary nature of each disorder.

A therapy session


ADHD and bipolar disorder can be commonly misdiagnosed for one another if not properly assessed by mental health professionals. This is why it is important to find a mental health professional who specializes in assessment and diagnosis of ADHD and/or bipolar or mood related disorders. This way an individual would be able to feel confident in their diagnoses and treatment thereafter.

Why contact an experienced mental health professional to assess your symptoms?

Having an experienced mental health professional diagnose an individual who is presenting with symptoms that may be bipolar or ADHD may have a better chance of accurate diagnosis. This is due to their specialization and conscientiousness when looking at a comprehensive medical history of the patient and mental health history of the family. Individuals may have different triggers that may lead to the firm diagnosis of bipolar, ADHD, or both disorders. Paying attention to any traumatic brain injuries, family history of either or both disorders, and duration or frequency of symptoms. These things are all crucial parts of the development and onset of ADHD and bipolar disorder. Finding a mental health professional who specializes and is experienced in diagnosing and/or treating these disorders can give a prospective client and their family piece of mind when moving forward with treatment for themselves or their loved one.

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