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Are More Kids Bipolar?

Here’s a popular  if disturbing statistic:  From 1994-2002, the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder increased 40-fold.

If you want to read about how children can be behaviorally challenging you have lots of options online and in bookstores.  But if you actually want to find a qualified pediatric mental health professional, and you  don’t live in a big city, good luck.  On the one hand, there aren’t enough qualified professionals to diagnose and treat complicated mental health issues in kids, on the other, lots of kids are getting scary diagnoses. Why is that?In an article on Slate on the prevalence of bi-polar diagnoses among children, Darshak Sanghavi explains that for every 11,000 American children, 1,000-2,000 will develop mental health issues, and, on average, there’s just one pediatric psychiatrist available to treat them. Parents and caregivers can wait months for appointments, a child’s symptoms can worsen, and, Sanghavi argues, insurance companies step into the breach.  They decide what gets covered, what doesn’t get covered, how much of something gets covered and why. Labels like “bi-polar” warrant coverage, as does medication for the disorder, while others diagnoses and treatment strategies don’t.

As Sanghavi point out, along with Judith Warner in her recent book We’ve Got Issues, no parent would pursue a diagnosis as stigmatizing as bi-polar disorder or choose medications for their child that have dangerous side-effects if they weren’t  desperate for help.  No one takes these steps lightly, and any kind of support can get expensive fast.

Treating mental illness and helping a child whose development is not typical takes hard work and perseverance and hope, which waiting lists longer than six-month can easily undermine. (Here’s a story about how far some families will go for help.)

Kids and their families need coordinated support services  that aren’t determined by the interests of insurance conglomerates but by their own needs.

Are there really more kids with bipolar disorder now than there were twenty years ago when it wasn’t even used as a diagnosis for children? Who knows. What we do know is  there’s a huge amount information out there about pediatric mental health issues and there are families who really need help.  Here’s to hoping that as awareness of mental health disorders in children increases, the real life mental health services for families looking for treatment will improve.

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