Joseph Blader, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry, and Gabrielle
Carlson, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York
at Stony Brook, studied the rates of hospital discharges in the United States
from 1996 through 2004.
Some interesting findings emerged with regard to bipolar disorder among
children (aged 5 to 13) and adolescents (aged 14 to 18).
The number of bipolar disorder discharges increased fivefold in
children—from 1.3 to 7.3 per 10,000 of the general population—and
fourfold in adolescents—from 5.1 to 20.4 per 10,000 of the general
As a proportion of the total number of psychiatrically related discharges,
children diagnosed with bipolar disorder constituted 10 percent in 1996 and 40
percent by 2004.
Moreover, bipolar disorder was one of the least-frequent psychiatric
diagnoses recorded for child inpatients in 1996, but the most common in 2004.
And while there were twice as many discharges of adolescents in 1996 for a
depressive disorder than for a bipolar one, by 2004 the rates were about
The findings are in press with Biological Psychiatry.
When Psychiatric News asked Kiki Chang, M.D., director of the
Pediatric Bipolar Disorders Program at Stanford University, what he thought of
these findings, he was astounded. The findings, he continued, are even more
remarkable "when one considers that, at least in the San Francisco Bay
area, inpatient beds have decreased during that time, and thresholds for
admissions have been raised."
To which David Axelson, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the
University of Pittsburgh and a pediatric bipolar authority, added, "The
authors have clearly identified a remarkable increase in the proportion of
hospitalized children and adolescents assigned a bipolar disorder diagnosis at
The reasons for this dramatic increase, however, are open to speculation at
this point. It might reflect an "upcoding" of volatile, aggressive
behavior in children with bipolar disorder to obtain reimbursement from
managed care, Blader and Carlson proposed in their study report. "The
survey years considered in this report coincided with payers' efforts to
constrain the use of costly inpatient services."
Or it might mirror an increased recognition of pediatric bipolar disorder,
Chang and Axelson suggested. "I think we have gotten better at
identifying bipolar disorder in kids since 1996," Axelson said. "A
bipolar diagnosis of 40 percent of child [psychiatric] admissions in 2004 does
seem high, but I also think the [actual] rate is significantly more than the
10 percent rate [found] in 1996."
In contrast, Axelson conjectured, the upswing in bipolar discharges among
youth during the period could be due to higher rates of hospital readmission."
During the study interval," he explained, "the admission
criteria for hospitalizing children and adolescents became substantially more
stringent. The length of hospital stays dropped, and readmission rates
increased. Since kids with bipolar disorder have high rates of dangerous
behavior, aggression, psychosis, and suicidality, I would expect that they
would be proportionally more likely to meet the more stringent admission
criteria and need readmission more often than [youth with] other
Race may have also played a role in the upswing, Blader and Carlson
suggested. Demographic differences in bipolar diagnoses in the earlier survey
years showed lower rates of the diagnosis among black youth, and especially
among black boys, than among youth of other races. However, in the most recent
survey years —2002 to 2004—bipolar discharges among black children
increased markedly for both boys and girls and came to exceed the rates among
white boys and girls. "It would be a positive development if this trend
corrects a bias that led to misdiagnosis in the past," Blader and
None of these bipolar authorities, though, seems to believe that the
upswing in bipolar discharges among youth is due to an increase in incidence
of the illness among them. However, Chang did venture that it might reflect an"
increase in the severity of childhood presentations of bipolar
The new study was based on data provided by the National Hospital Discharge
Survey, which the National Center for Health Statistics conducts annually. It
captures patient-level information pertaining to discharges during the
calendar year from nonfederal general hospitals, children's hospitals, and
more specialized hospitals.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the
National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.
An abstract of "Increased Rates of Bipolar Disorder Diagnoses
Among U.S. Child, Adolescent, and Adult Inpatients, 1996-2004" is posted