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Bipolar disorder may be over-diagnosed

May 7, 2008 | 11:23 am

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One of the most controversial topics in psychiatry over the last few years centers on the questions what is bipolar disorder, and how many people have it. Estimates on rates of the disease, which is marked by periods of depression alternating with episodes of euphoria, are heavily debated. A new study, however, suggests doctors are over-diagnosing bipolar illness.

The paper, presented today at the American Psychiatric Assn. meeting in Washington, D.C, and published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that fewer than half of the people who were previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder could be said to have the disorder when strict diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (the so-called bible for diagnosing mental disorders) were applied.

The study's lead author, Dr. Mark Zimmerman of Brown University, suggests drug company advertising is leading doctors astray. Doctors tend to believe they have arrived at a correct diagnose if the medication they prescribe shows some benefit, says Zimmerman, adding:

"This bias is reinforced by the marketing message of pharmaceutical companies to physicians, which has emphasized the literature on the delayed and underrecognition of bipolar disorder..."

Or, as the author of the psych blog Furious Seasons points out: "he's saying that doctors -- you know, those rational, god-like creatures who do things based on Science --are being softened up by all those pharma ads saying bipolar is wildly underdiagnosed." Medication for bipolar often produces serious side effects.

The study is rich fodder for the just-appointed members of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s Work Group who will soon begin writing the fifth edition of the mental disorders manual. DSM-V will represent the first complete revision of the text since 1994, a period in which, psychiatric association experts note, "may prove to be the most scientifically productive era in the history of psychiatry." The final text is expected to be published in 2012. Let's hope it makes huge strides in clearing up some of the astonishing confusion surrounding bipolar disease -- along with many other perplexing questions about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children and adults.

--Shari Roan

Illustration: Darren Booth / For The Times

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