Family Therapy Best for Youth at Risk for Bipolar Disorder

Family Therapy Best for Youth at Risk for Bipolar Disorder

Therapy for the entire family might help kids and teens vulnerable to bipolar disorder stay healthy longer, new research suggests.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Colorado and Stanford University studied 127 young people from ages 9 to 17.

They analyzed two types of treatment that delay new and recurring bipolar symptoms: family-focused therapy and psychoeducation. Family-focused therapy teaches communication skills to both patients and their families, while psychoeducation helps develop a plan for patients to manage and cope with symptoms.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is diagnosed by patterns of extreme mood and energy shifts. There is no cure, but medication and psychotherapy can help some patients.

Young people in the study were at high risk of bipolar disorder due to a family history of the condition. Early warning signs of the condition, including depression and mania, were observed in all participants at the study's onset.

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Some families may not realize their children are at risk for bipolar disorder. "They [parents] think they're just moody kids," said study author David Miklowitz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

"But there are telltale signs, such as sudden changes in mood and energy levels, irritability, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed such that they can't get out of bed," he explained in a UCLA news release. "Often, these are kids for whom bipolar disorder runs in the family."

Seventy-seven percent of young people in family-focused therapy recovered from their bipolar symptoms during the study. The symptoms did not recur for an average of 87 weeks. In the psychoeducation group, only 65% of children and teens recovered. The average time of symptom recurrence was 63 weeks.

The findings were published Jan. 15 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

"This study is an important first step in trying to decrease the severity of bipolar disorder early on for children," said study co-author Dr. Christopher Schneck, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. "Efforts at home and in health care settings, like providing skill training for families, can make a big difference in a child's suffering."

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