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Comorbid Substance Use Disorders Among Youth With Bipolar Disorder: Opportunities for Early Identification and Prevention

J Clin Psychiatry 2010;71(3):348-358

Objective: The burden of substance use disorders (SUDs) among adults with bipolar disorder is well documented. Comparatively less is known regarding comorbid SUD among youth with bipolar disorder. This article aims to integrate the extant literature on this topic and to suggest strategies for delaying or preventing SUD among youth with bipolar disorder.

Data Sources and Study Selection: Relevant studies in English were identified using PubMed and MEDLINE (1950–February 2009). Search terms were bipolar disorder cross-referenced with child, adolescent, or youth, and alcohol, drug, or substance, and abuse, dependence, or disorder. Articles were selected on the basis of containing data regarding both bipolar disorder and SUD. The search was supplemented by manually reviewing reference lists from the identified publications.

Data Synthesis: Epidemiologic and clinical studies demonstrate that youth-onset bipolar disorder confers even greater risk of SUD in comparison with adult-onset bipolar disorder. Recent studies of youth with bipolar disorder have not identified childhood SUD (0%); however, the prevalence of SUD escalates during adolescence (16%–39%). Substance use disorder among bipolar youth is associated with legal and academic difficulties, pregnancy, and suicidality. Few studies have addressed interventions for this population, although studies are underway. Because bipolar disorder onset most commonly precedes SUD among youth (55%–83%), there is a window of opportunity for prevention.

Conclusions: Pending the results of ongoing treatment studies, several strategies are suggested for curtailing the burden of SUD in youth with bipolar disorder. These include screening for substance use among bipolar youth beginning at age 10 irrespective of other risk factors, education and intervention at the family level, and implementation of preventive interventions that have been successful in other populations.

Submitted: March 17, 2009; accepted August 18, 2009.

Online ahead of print: December 1, 2009.

Corresponding author: Benjamin I. Goldstein, MD, Department of Psychiatry, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, 2075 Bayview Avenue, FG53, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4N-3M5 (benjamin.goldstein@sunnybrook.ca).