Assessment in Primary Care Pediatrics

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?


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 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 up 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 receiving 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 processes and a matching lack of ability to sleep that can affect their thought, speech, and decision-making. At first blush, Carrie’s history does not indicate current symptoms of bipolar disorder.3

Case, continued

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 to a pan-present at 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 still be 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 no additional symptoms of bipolar disorder and you are concerned based on family history alone, you do not want to withhold antidepressant treatment because of 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 cuminate 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.

Case, continued

Carrie presents to you again while in her first semester of college at the age of 19. She is taking a leave of absence after she began experimenting with cocaine at college and had a manic episode characterized by a lack of sleep without fatigue, persistent unabating energy , rapid and pressured speech, and ultimately, concern from her college friends. She was admitted to a psychiatric unit and stabilized on a second-generation antipsychotic, risperidone, which has solid evidence for mania, but she and you are now concerned about longer-term metabolic effects.15,16

You discuss monitoring her lipid profile and hemoglobin A1c, in addition to weight gain and waist circumference. She has connected with a therapist and psychiatrist through the college counseling center and hopes to return next semester with a fresh start and commitment to sobriety and social rhythms therapy known to be helpful for patients with bipolar disorder.17

While it is challenging to manage a chronic illness at her age, she feels hopeful that she can make better choices for her overall health with your support and the support of her family and mental health team.

Dr. Pawlowski is a child and adolescent consulting psychiatrist. She is a division chief at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington, where she focuses on primary care mental health integration within primary care pediatrics, internal medicine, and family medicine.


1. Bipolar Disorder. 2016 Jan 9 doi: 10.1111/bdi.12358.

2. Int J Bipolar Disorder. 2021 Jun 25. doi: 10.1186/s40345-021-00225-5.

3. Am J Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 11. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18040461.

4. DSM-5 Changes: Implications for Child Serious Emotional Disturbance. Rockville, Md.: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016.

5. The CRAFFT tool.

6. General Behavior Inventory. Parent Version (P-GBI) Short Form H/B (Revised Version, 2008).

7. Child Mania Rating Scale, Parent Version (CMRS-P).


9. J Clin Psychiatry. 2000 Sep. doi: 10.4088/jcp.v61n0906.

10. Int J Bipolar Disorder. 2020 Apr 20. doi: 10.1186/s40345-020-00185-2.

11. Int J Bipolar Disorder. 2021 Jun 25. doi: 10.1186/s40345-021-00225-5.

12. Bipolar Disorder. 2017 Sep 25. doi: 10.1111/bdi.12556.


14. Parent Version of the Young Mania Rating Scale (PYMRS).

15. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jan 2. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1508.

16. The Carlat Child Psychiatry Report. “Bipolar Disorder” Newburyport, Mass.: Carlat Publishing, 2012.


This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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