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Networker News

Children in Crisis? Concerns about the growing popularity of the bipolar diagnosis

By Rob Waters

January/February 2006

Ten years ago, bipolar disorder was considered a disabling adult mental illness that was almost never described in children. Today child psychiatrists are diagnosing it in a growing number of children and adolescents, fueling a surge in the use of antipsychotic medications among the young. This has sparked a backlash from critics who see the rise of "juvenile bipolar disorder" as the latest fad sweeping the psychiatry field.

While the exact number of children diagnosed with the disorder is unknown, there's little doubt that it's risen dramatically. The Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, a parent-led advocacy group, estimates that at least 750,000 American children and adolescents suffer from the disorder, most of them undiagnosed and untreated.

Data provided to the Networker by NDC Health Corp, an Atlanta-based firm that tracks trends in the use of prescribed medications, shows that the number of antipsychotic drugs prescribed to children and teenagers grew by 50 percent—from 250,000 to 375,000 prescriptions—between January 2002 and June 2005. While antipsychotics are prescribed to children for a variety of reasons, the most common, experts say, is to treat bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder was first flagged as a pediatric illness in the mid-1990s, when researchers led by Joseph Biederman of Harvard and Barbara Geller of Washington University in St. Louis…

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