During a particularly busy day in my inpatient and outpatient practice, I realized that nearly every one of the patients had been given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder at one point or another. The interesting thing is this wasn’t an unusual day.
Nearly all of my patients and their family members have been given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Because prevalence of bipolar affective disorders is a little over 2%, this seemed a little odd. Could there be an epidemic of bipolar disorder in the area? Should someone sound the alarm on this unique cluster and get Julia Roberts ready? Unfortunately, the story behind this mystery is a little less sexy but nevertheless interesting.
When I probe more into what symptoms might have led to the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I most often get some sort of answer about being easily angered (“I’m fine 1 minute and the next minute I’m yelling at my mom”) or mood changing from 1 minute to the next. Rarely do they tell me about sleeping less, increased energy, change in mood (elation, anger, irritability), increase in activity level, and increased pleasurable though dangerous activities all happening around the same time(s). So what is going on?
Beginning in the 1990s, a debate about the phenotypic presentation of pediatric bipolar disorder polarized the field. It was theorized that mania could present with severe nonepisodic irritability with extended periods of very rapid mood cycling within the day as opposed to discrete episodic mood cycles in children and adolescents. With this broader conceptualization in the United States, the rate of bipolar diagnosis increased by over 40 times in less than a decade.1 Similarly, the use of mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics in children also rose substantially.2
To help assess if severe nonepisodic irritability belongs in the spectrum of bipolar disorders, the National Institutes of Mental Health proposed a syndrome called “Severe Mood Dysregulation” or SMD, to promote the study of children with this phenotype. In longitudinal studies, Stringaris et al. compared rates of manic episodes in youth with SMD versus bipolar disorder over 2 years and found only one youth (1%) with SMD who presented with manic, hypomanic, or mixed episodes, compared with 58 (62%) with bipolar disorder.3 Leibenluft et al.showed that chronic irritability during early adolescence predicted ADHD at late adolescence and major depressive disorder in early adulthood whereas episodic irritability predicted mania.4 Twenty-year follow-up of the same sample showed chronic irritability in adolescence predicted dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorders, and major depressive disorder.5 Other longitudinal studies essentially have shown the same results.6
At this point, the question of whether chronic irritability is a part of the bipolar spectrum disorder is largely resolved –7 The diagnosis emphasizes the episodic nature of the illness, and that irritability would wax and wane with other manic symptoms such as changes in energy and sleep. And the ultrarapid mood changes (mood changes within the day) appear to describe mood fluctuations within a manic episode as opposed to each change being a separate episode.
So, most likely, my patients were caught in a time of uncertainty before data were able to clarify their phenotype.
Dr. Chung is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington, and practices at Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Email him at