Child Bipolar Diagnoses Have Quintupled in a Decade

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A four-year-old died of prescription overdose in December. Rebecca Riley in Massachusetts had been diagnosed with hyperactivity and bipolar disorder at age 2 and 3, and was on three prescription meds at the time of her death: clonidine, Depakote, and Seroquel. Her parents were charged with murder.

Who is nuts in this case? In my opinion, any doctor who diagnoses a toddler with ADD and bipolar disorder. Since they can hardly talk, crying is the only way for them to communicate that they’re hungry, they need a diaper change, or they just want attention. And sometimes no one is listening anyway.

It’s one thing for adults to seek out a drug prescription when their emotions overwhelm them. Ethically, it’s a completely different thing for a psychiatrist to drug children who overwhelm mom and dad. This Masachussetts psychiatrist effectively recommended that Rebecca’s parents to medicate her and her two older siblings for what–throwing too many tantrums? What a mixed message to send to an undereducated, overwhelmed mother.

But it happens all the time. Andy Coghlan of the UK’s New Scientist points out that bipolar diagnoses in American children have grown fivefold in ten years.

In 1996, 13 out of every 100,000 children in the US were diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. In 2004, the figure was 73 in 100,000, a more than fivefold rise, they report in a paper to be published in Biological Psychiatry. Among children diagnosed with a psychiatric condition in 1996, 1 in 10 were deemed to have bipolar disorder. By 2004, 4 out of 10 children with a psychiatric condition were told they were bipolar.

That’s more bipolar kids per capita than any other country. Drugging troublesome toddlers seems like the real national illness. Or at least a symptom of that peculiarly American combination of materialism and wishful thinking.

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In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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