Childhood Bipolar Disorder Still Poorly Treated

December 5, 2011 · Posted in Current Treatments, Diagnosis 

Boy taking medication

Kathleen Merikangas of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gave a plenary presentation on developmental manifestations of the bipolar spectrum at the 2011 Pediatric Bipolar Disorder Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past March, which was sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Ryan Licht Sang Foundation. There were several striking take-away messages from her epidemiological research. She found that:

  1. Rates of bipolar disorder in childhood were relatively similar to rates among adults
  2. Only 22% of youth with bipolar spectrum diagnoses actually obtained mental health treatment for their conditions
  3. There was no evidence that these children were being over-medicated, as some non-epidemiological reports had suggested

She also reported that those with subthreshold bipolar spectrum disorders, i.e. those not meeting strict criteria for BP-I (including full-blown mania) or BP-II (including hypomania for four or more days) still were very ill and had considerable disability and dysfunction.

Merikangas reported on interviews of 10,123 youth aging from 13 to 18 found in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), and found rates of illness among the youth similar to those seen in adults. However, these children with bipolar spectrum disorders were more than ten times more likely to be on antidepressants than mood stabilizers, and more than four times more likely to be on antidepressants than atypical antipsychotics, again suggesting these children were not receiving the treatments recommended by consensus guidelines.

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