HEALTHY LIVING
06/21/2011 12:19 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2011

Bipolar Diagnoses Up 40 Times From Decade Ago

It shouldn't come as a surprise that bipolar disorder has been a frequent subject of media attention lately. For example, just this spring, Catherine Zeta Jones checked herself into a mental health clinic for treatment of bipolar disorder. How could it not be on our minds, when it has become such a large part of the American family's everyday life?

A recent study shows that the number of American children diagnosed with bipolar disorder increased 40 times in the last 10 years, the Star Tribune reported. In one state alone, spending on antipsychotic drugs to treat the condition, such as Abilify, has increased 17 times since 2000.

Dr. Carrie Borchardt, a child psychiatrist with Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, said that in the last decade these medications have become the problem instead of the solution.

"A substantial number of those kids, if you take them off the problem medication, those symptoms go away," she told the Star Tribune. "And then they don't have bipolar, they just had a medication-induced problem."

Drawing on his almost 50 years as a child psychiatrist, Stuart L. Kaplan told Newsweek why he thinks medication for child bipolar disorder points back to an even bigger problem: The ability to diagnose children with the disorder in the first place.

"It's nearly impossible to distinguish between children alleged to have bipolar disorder and those with straightforward anger-control issues. ... Most of these symptoms can easily be matched to less-trendy conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). My view is that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in a child is almost always a case of severe ADHD combined with severe ODD, both fairly common in elementary-school children."

The diagnosing, however, might be changing soon. Psychiatrists such as Kaplan and Borchardt are beginning to worry that thousands of children may have been falsely categorized as having the disorder because of "overzealous doctors" and "aggressive marketing by drug companies," as Borchardt told the Star Tribune. The upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- the manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose patients -- will be rewritten with a new disorder that will replace bipolar for many cases.

The new disorder, named Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, would apply to pre-adolescent children who are have frequent outbursts in different settings and locations. However, some still doubt the effectiveness of creating a new label for the behavior because it will still be considered a disorder of biological origins, which -- like bipolar disorder -- will require medication for treatment, according to the Star Tribune.

Another thing that continues to puzzle doctors is that two-thirds of child bipolar cases involve boys, but only half of adult cases involve grown-up-men.

Dr. Ellen Leibenluft of the National Institute of Mental Health shared with the Star Tribune how she thinks the stigma of the disorder has changed throughout her life.

"People often ask, 'Where were these kids when we were younger?'" she told the Star Tribune. "I can think back, and there were definitely kids who were struggling. People viewed them as problem kids, not kids with problems."