The Misdiagnosis Files: ADD/ADHD and Bipolar Disorder

BipolarI have often written about the danger that the current rates of (over)diagnosis of ADD/ADHD poses to our children. Not only does it lead to unnecessary exposure to dangerous psycho-stimulants, it also often obscures the true reasons behind a child’s health problems. Many parents are thus ‘reassured’ that the issues are being addressed while this is simply not the case. This scenario can obviously lead to very negative health outcomes in the long run as undiagnosed conditions remain untreated.

One of the most serious conditions that are often missed due to overzealous ADD/ADHD diagnoses is bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder (also called bipolar depression or manic depression) is a serious mental condition. Sufferers experience severe swings between high-energy elevated moods (the ‘manic’ phase) and low-energy depressed stages. Bipolar disorder can have a dramatic impact on the quality of life of a sufferer and requires specialist, often prolonged, medical intervention.

About half of one percent of children suffer from bipolar disorder in various stages of severity. This makes the condition much less prevalent than ADD/ADHD, a condition generally thought to affect 3-4% of children (certainly not the more than 10% that prescription rates in many parts of North America would seem to suggest). There are some cases of co-morbidity (i.e. where both conditions are present). It is far more common, however, for bipolar disorder to be confused with ADD/ADHD. This is a very dangerous situation as the drugs that are used to treat ADD/ADHD are almost guaranteed to increase the severity of the mood swings of patients with bipolar disorder.