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Diagnosis of children with bipolar disorder has increased 4-fold in the past decade. The reason for the increase concerns researchers because it could be the result of one of two things. First, it could be a system correcting itself from a period when many children were under diagnosed. Second, it could be that physicians are misdiagnosing a child as bipolar when a diagnosis of another mental disorder would be more appropriate. Of course, a third reason could be a combination of the previous reasons.

The reason for the researcher’s concern about the tremendous increase of bipolar diagnosis in children is that a 2001 study found that nearly half of bipolar diagnosis in adolescent patients made by community clinicians were later re-classified as other mental disorders. The problem is compounded by the fact that treatment for bipolar disorder in adults has been well researched, but few studies have examined the safety and effectiveness of psychiatric medications for treating bipolar children and adolescents.

A study found that despite the lack of psychiatric medication research for treating children and adolescents diagnosed as bipolar, they are often medicated in a similar way as adult bipolar patients. About 1/3 of both adults and children with bipolar were prescribed an antidepressant. Of those prescribed an antidepressant about 1/3 were not also given a mood stabilizer, which is not advisable according to a recent study. It was also found that adults taking a mood stabilizer did not benefit by also taking a antidepressant.

One main difference found in treatment of bipolar children and adults was that children and teens were more likely to be prescribed a stimulant medication–usually something prescribed for treating ADHD–while adults were more likely to be prescribed a medication to treat anxiety disorders.

The researchers noted that given the lack of studies on appropriate treatments for youth with bipolar disorder there is an urgent need for additional research on the safety and effectiveness of medication treatments that are commonly prescribed to this age group.