Child Psychiatry Consult

Mood disorder? Assessment in primary care


The assessment and diagnosis of bipolar disorder in youth has a complicated and controversial history. I recall from my child and adolescent fellowship training that there was a thinly veiled faculty argument about the diagnosis itself with strong opinions on each side. To revisit this quandary, I reviewed the most up-to-date literature and outlined a case-based approach to the initial screening assessment. Certainly, the assessment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist would be the standard for diagnosis, but we do know that the pediatrician’s office may be the first setting for a child and parent to present with mood symptoms and concerns about bipolar disorder. What can you do to address this adolescent, Carrie, and her mother’s concerns?

Dr. Sara Pawlowski, a child and adolescent consulting psychiatrist in Vermont.

Dr. Sara Pawlowski


Carrie is a 17-year-old girl who has struggled through her childhood and adolescence with anxious and depressive symptoms which have ebbed and flowed with major life stressors, including her parent’s divorce. She has tried cognitive-behavioral therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but the SSRI seemed to cause feelings of anxiousness and agitation, so she stopped it within weeks.

Her mother presents to you concerned that Carrie has had a more persistently irritable mood toward her, often just wanting to be with her friends or otherwise isolate in her room when home to study.

Most concerning to her mother is that Carrie, as a straight A student, has also developed a pattern of staying up all night to study for tests and then “crashes” and sleeps through the weekend, avoiding her mother and only brightening with her friends.

To complicate matters, Carrie’s biological father had type 1 bipolar disorder and an addiction. Her mother comes to you with an initially nonparticipatory Carrie in tow and says: “My former husband began his manic episodes with a lack of sleep and Carrie is so irritable towards me. I feel like I am walking on eggshells all the time. Could this be bipolar disorder?”

Case discussion

First, it’s always useful to frame a visit stating that you will spend some time with the patient and some time with both the patient and parent. Emphasizing confidentiality about issues such as drug use, which can be comorbid with mood symptoms and go undetected in high-achieving students such as Carrie, is also important. Further emphasizing that information will not be reflexively shared with the parent unless the child presents a danger to herself or others is also paramount to receive an honest report of symptoms.

Second, there are many signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder that naturally overlap with other conditions such as distractibility with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or irritability in either a unipolar depression or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.1 You are looking for an episodic (not chronic) course of symptoms with episodes that last over 5 days for hypomania and over the course of weeks for mania all while meeting all the classic criteria for bipolar disorder.

Note that the broadening of diagnostic criteria has been thought to contribute to an inflated sense of prevalence. The actual expert estimate of prevalence is around 0.8%-1.8% in pediatric populations, although there is a large published range depending on whether the criteria are modified or not.2 Use of the unmodified criteria from the DSM-5 is the recommended approach. Bipolar disorder is exceedingly rare in prepubertal children, and it would be more common for prodromal symptoms such as Carrie’s to emerge and escalate over the teenage years, culminating in a clearer diagnosis in the later teens or 20s.3

In my screening questions, I find the idea of an “infatiguable state” is the most pathognomonic one in considering mania in bipolar disorder.4 Carrie’s “crashing” after nights of studying shows that she clearly fatigues. Patients with bipolar disorder within episodes of hypomania or mania have a seismic shift in perceived energy and a matching lack of ability to sleep that can affect their thought processes, speech, and decision-making. At first blush, Carrie’s history does not indicate current symptoms of bipolar disorder.3


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