When you meet with Carrie alone she shares that she has been experimenting with prescribed stimulants from her older college-aged brother in order to study and ace her tests. She is also experimenting with alcohol and marijuana with her friends. You provide her the CRAFFT tool to deepen your screening of this issue.5
With her mother, you administer the Parent General Behavior Inventory6 and the and the Child Mania Rating Scale7. From these scales, you note that the irritability is more specific to Carrie’s family than pan-present in school and with friends. Her lack of sleep occurs at high-pressure and discreet times.
At this point, you reassure Carrie and her mother that Carrie does not present with symptoms of bipolar disorder but that certainly you will continue screening assessments over time, as they are a good means to track symptoms. You also recommend that Carrie consider mood tracking so she can develop insights into her mood and its relationship to sleep and other events as she prepares for college.8
Case discussion, continued
The strongest risk factor for bipolar disorder in youth is family history (specifically a parent) with bipolar disorder).9 If there is the chance to explore the parent’s illness with open-ended questions, you will want to hear about the parent’s age of symptom onset, course of treatment, any hospitalizations, and stabilizing medications because this has prognostic power for your patient. It is important to ensure that the parent indeed has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and that it is not just being used colloquially to characterize an adult who has labile moods from hour to hour or day to day. This would give undue anticipatory anxiety to a youth about their risk, which is up to 8- to 10-fold greater with a parent with bipolar disorder.9
Even with a strong family history, we do not often see bipolar disorder emerge in prepubertal children.10,11 There may be still concerning prodromal symptoms in which a diagnosis of unipolar depression with more irritable features and mood lability seems more commonly complicated by substance use, as with Carrie.
Activation with an SSRI, as in Carrie’s case, even if not resulting in full mania or hypomania, can also be a soft sign of the serotonergic sensitivity present in bipolar disorder. However, if there are not additional symptoms of bipolar disorder and you are concerned based on family history alone, you do not want to withhold antidepressant treatment because fear of risk. You would want to consider a “dose low and go slow” titration process with more frequent monitoring.
A diagnostic interview with a child and adolescent psychiatrist and administration of scales such as the Young Mania Rating Scale and the Modified Child Depression Rating Scale are the standard means to assess for bipolar symptoms.12 Considering the dearth of child psychiatrists nationally, it would be useful to improve one’s screening in primary care so as to not inadvertently “refer out” all patients for whom mood dysregulation is a concern.
There is also a more expanded tool that includes several scales integrated with clinical information (parent’s age of mood disorder onset, child’s age) which can culminate in a risk score.13
Lastly, I provide my patients with a handout of the Young Mania Rating Scale to take home as a reference and to complete before our next visit.14
You can repeat scales to monitor for more striking bipolar disorder signs and symptoms that emerge over the course of one’s longitudinal treatment of a pediatric patient. This can be an ongoing, episodic assessment since the emergence of bipolar disorder has been shown to range from the teenage years and beyond into the 20s and sometimes 30s.