Often times bipolar disorder is thought of as an illness that effects mostly young adults, and while the average age of bipolar disorder is around the age of 21, younger children and teens can also be effected with the disorder, sometimes referred to as pediatric bipolar disorder.
Working in a high school with students who mostly have anger problems, I hear a lot of them talking about their “mood swings” and some of them even call themselves “bipolar” although they have never been officially diagnosed. But almost everyone has mood swings from time to time, so what exactly is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic-depressive disorder) is a brain illness characterized by episodes of intense mood swings and behaviors known as mania (high energy, elated, impulsive, etc.) and depression that are usually high or low and shift, generally over days or weeks, and sometimes even blend (mixed episodes). It is not the same as the normal ups and down adolescents and teens go through, it is much more severe.
Early onset bipolar disorder happens in adolescence and the early teenage years and may be more severe than bipolar that develops later in life. There was a time in the past when most experts did not believe that bipolar disorder could happen in childhood, but research shows that at least half of bipolar disorder cases start before the age of 25. Children with bipolar disorder often have co-occurring disorders such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorders.
Adolescents and teens exhibiting a manic episode of bipolar disorder may:
- Feel very happy and act silly in a way that is unusal
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things
- Have a short temper
- Do risky things (i.e. jumping off of things, dashing in front of cars)
- Have trouble sleeping, yet not feel tired
- Have trouble staying focused
- Talk and think about sex more often (if they are sexually active they may actively seek out sexual encounters)
- Sleep too little or too much
- Be very sad/depressed
- Complain about various pains such as stomach and headaches
- Eat too little or too much
- Feel very guilty
- Be overly emotional and/or sensitive
- Have little energy or interest in doing anything
- Think/talk about suicide and/or death
Treatments for bipolar disorder include medications and psychotherapies including family therapy (it is important that parents taking care of a child with bipolar disorder, just like any other illness, take the time for self-care in order to be healthy and effective caregivers themselves). There is a concern that many children are being over diagnosed with bipolar disorder since in children, bipolar disorder can also look like other disorders such as severe mood dysregulation or temper dysregulation disorder, and some children may not have a disorder at all but be expressing another, normal biopsychological response to life stressors. While there is no way to prevent bipolar disorder, there is ongoing research trying to find a way to delay the onset of symptoms in children with a family history of the disorder.
I currently see 69 adolescents and adults for various reasons and only about three or four I would seriously evaluate for bipoloar disorder and two I have diagnosed with it. One of them is a 15 year old female and her parents are currently in denial of the seriousness of her illness, yet don’t understand why she isn’t getting better although I’ve had to Baker Act (Florida’s statue for involuntary examination of an individual where they are kept up to 72hrs in a hospital for their saftey) due to suicidal thoughts and self-injury. I’ve also referred them repeatedly for medication evaluations, but again, her parents are in denial and think her issue is all behavioral and not a real illness like bipolar disorder. I have another 15 year old girl I diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she is now on medication (Trilecta) and seeing me for cognitive behavioral therapy and is doing a lot better.
Where to go for Help?
As always, your family doctor or mental health professional should be able to direct you to the proper source of help for your child. If not, look up a doctor or mental health facility in your area to have your child evaluated and treated if necessary. If you know someone who is in crisis do not leave them alone, instead get them help, go to an emergency room or call 911 if it is necessary to keep them safe from themselves. If you are in need of help, the same applies and you can also call a free suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8225). Also, www.thebalancedmind.org . Their “Library” section has terrific information on pediatric bipolar disorder as well as an excellent checklist to help you monitor your child’s behavior.