Childhood Bipolar Disorder

Early-Onset Bipolar

Research findings, clinical experience, and family accounts provide substantial evidence that bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, can occur in children and adolescents. Bipolar disorder is difficult to recognize and diagnose in youth, however, because it does not fit precisely the symptom criteria established for adults, and because its symptoms can resemble or co-occur with those of other common childhood-onset mental disorders. In addition, symptoms of bipolar disorder may be initially mistaken for normal emotions and behaviors of children and adolescents. But unlike normal mood changes, bipolar disorder significantly impairs functioning in school, with peers, and at home with family.

Doctors recognize that bipolar disorder is a serious but treatable medical illness. It’s defined as a disorder of the brain marked by extreme changes in mood, energy, thinking and behavior. Symptoms may be present since infancy or early childhood, or may suddenly emerge in adolescence or adulthood. Until recently, a diagnosis of the disorder was rarely made in childhood. Doctors can now recognize and treat bipolar disorder in young children.

Early intervention and treatment offer the best chance for children with emerging bipolar disorder to achieve stability, gain the best possible level of wellness, and grow up to enjoy their gifts and build upon their strengths. Proper treatment can minimize the adverse effects of the illness on their lives and the lives of those who love them.

Families of affected children and adolescents are almost always baffled by early-onset bipolar disorderand are desperate for information and support. In this section, you will find answers to some of the most common questions asked about the disorder.

How common is bipolar disorder in children?

It is not known, because studies are lacking. However, bipolar disorder affects an estimated 1-2 percent of adults worldwide. The New York Times reports that as of 2003, over 800,000 children and adolescents had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the U.S. and that the more researchers, doctors and consumers learn about this disorder, the more prevalent it appears to be among children.

It is suspected that a significant number of children diagnosed in the United States with attention-deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD) have early-onset bipolar disorder instead of, or along with, ADHD.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, up to one-third of the 3.4 million children and adolescents with depression in the United States may actually be experiencing the early onset of bipolar disorder.


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