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Bipolar Disorder

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Bipolar disorder in teens is characterized by dramatic mood swings, alternating from extreme optimism and energy (mania) to depression. The mood swings may be mild or intense and they can come on gradually or quickly and last for hours, days, or weeks.

There are two types of bipolar disorder:

  • Bipolar I is characterized by extreme shifts between depression and mania. Someone with this type may be highly energetic, overly optimistic and excessively talkative. They may also experience paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions. Sometimes a person with Bipolar I will require hospitalization to manage the symptoms. Usually this type of bipolar persists for life.
  • Bipolar II is marked by depression and a mild form of mania called hypomania. Someone with hypomania may experience periods of high energy and productivity. This type is often associated with high achievers.

3 Important Facts

  • Teens with bipolar disorder are at high risk for suicide.
  • Although anyone can have bipolar disorder, someone with a parent who has the disorder is about nine times more likely to get it than the general population.
  • Teens experiencing manic episodes are often highly impulsive and engage in high-risk behavior, such as thrill-seeking behavior or promiscuity.

Signs to look for

  • Excessive talking, rapid speech or racing thoughts
  • Thoughts or intentions of suicide
  • Elevated mood and exaggerated optimism
  • Increased energy and decreased need for sleep
  • Sense of invincibility and exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Impulsive and risky behavior, such as overspending, driving recklessly, making rash decisions
  • Using taboo language and increased socially inappropriate behaviors, thoughts and feelings (e.g., about sex)
  • Increased irritability, aggressive behavior or anger
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Sleeping too much or inability to sleep
  • Difficulty eating or overeating
  • Inability to enjoy activities
  • Prolonged sad mood
  • Increased anxiety, irritability, and/or anger
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Lack of energy

Next steps

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that needs treatment and constant monitoring. Because impulsive behavior is associated with manic episodes, those who are experiencing bipolar symptoms can engage in dangerous and reckless behavior. Also, during depressive episodes, someone who is exhibiting bipolar behavior may include sudden and profound impulses to commit suicide. Treating bipolar disorder in a timely manner is essential.

Bipolar is usually treated with a combination of medication and therapy. If you think you may have bipolar disorder, talk with a medical doctor or psychiatrist as well as a mental health professional.

Residential treatment has several advantages for teens with bipolar disorder. Individual, family, and group therapy are all useful in managing the illness and helping both the teen and her family feel supported and less alone.

If your child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, don’t try to go it alone. The best and first thing you can do is surround yourself with support. Work with your family therapist and psychiatrist to identify local resources for support, education, and treatment. This kind of community-based support can give you the insight, hope, and care you and your child will need for the journey ahead.

Common Q and A

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. However, research shows there is a high genetic component to the disorder. In addition to genetics, chemical imbalances in the brain may contribute to the risk of developing the disease. Environmental factors also play a role in developing bipolar disorder.

How common is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects roughly 5.5 million Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the population. It is typically diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30.

What is hypomania?

Hypomania is a milder version of a manic episode. Although people with hypomania can often function well, the condition is still serious because hypomania can lead to risky behaviors and may increase to full mania.

How do I know it's bipolar rather than normal mood swings?

Everyone experiences changes in mood. We might be excited about an upcoming project or vacation or become sad after a breakup or other disappointment. But those suffering from bipolar disorder experience intense, dramatic changes in mood that often become destructive to the person’s life and the lives of those around them. If you’re not sure, talk with a mental health professional.

How can I reduce the risk of suicide?

Many people with Bipolar disorder attempt suicide and, sadly, up to 15 percent succeed. Although symptoms can be managed through treatment, paying close attention to warning signs is also important. If your loved one is talking about death or suicide, engaging in life-threatening behavior or talking about feeling hopeless, do not leave them alone. If necessary, take her to the nearest hospital to protect them from harm.