How To Identify Bipolar Disorder In Teens
Though changes in personality, lifestyle, and behavior can all be typical parts of a teen’s journey to adulthood, severe symptoms that affect daily life generally are not. Knowing how to recognize potential signs of a mental health disorder, including bipolar disorder, can help you learn when it may be time to seek help for your teen. After all, around 50% of all chronic mental conditions begin at the age of 14. If you suspect your teen may be experiencing bipolar disorder, it may help to familiarize yourself with what treatment options are available and what you can do to act as a system of support.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness typically characterized by intense mood swings between extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression).
When someone has bipolar disorder, their symptoms can often interfere with their ability to function or feel in control of their emotions. This can affect their mood, energy level, behavior, and relationships with others. Likewise, the intense periods of emotional highs and lows that can come with bipolar disorder may pose risks to a teen’s health and safety – things like risky behavior, a lack of sleep, or isolating oneself from others are just a few examples of consequences that may stem from a lack of proper treatment.
Causes Of Bipolar Disorder In Teens
Doctors and scientists aren't yet sure exactly what causes bipolar disorder. Like other mental health disorders, it seems to have a tendency to run in families. There may be a genetic component in which someone with a certain gene is more likely to have bipolar disorder than someone without it. However, which gene that might be is still unknown.
Experts also believe that environmental factors may trigger the onset of symptoms. Traumatic or significant life events, exposure to substance use, instability at home, and other similar circumstances may lead to the development of bipolar disorder. It’s also possible that some individuals may be biologically predisposed to bipolar disorder, but environmental factors may be the missing link that can lead to its manifestation.
What Are The Symptoms Of Bipolar Disorder In Teens?
Teens with bipolar disorder may have manic episodes that feature intense happiness or euphoria, impulsive behavior, and feelings of near invincibility. They may also experience manic episodes that have the same characteristics but are less severe, which are known as hypomanic episodes. Finally, it’s also possible and typical to experience depressive episodes characterized by intense sadness, disinterest in activities, and irritability, among other things.
Symptoms Of Manic Episodes
Mania has symptoms that are generally related to changes in a person's energy and mood. To be clinically significant, the manic symptoms must occur most of the time for most days of a week. Some of the symptoms include:
- Excessive energy
- Increased activity
- Feeling jumpy or uneasy
- Having an exaggerated idea of what they can do
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Inflated self-esteem
- Rapid and disjointed speech
- Racing thoughts
- Being easily distracted
- Trouble sleeping/insomnia
- Heightened sex drive
- Poor judgment
Symptoms Of Depressive Episodes
During depressive episodes, your teen might seem disconnected, often sad or disinterested, and have very little energy. Depressive symptoms are generally clinically significant if they happen about every day for two weeks. Here are some of the symptoms you might notice during a depressive phase:
- Feeling sad or down
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Eating more or less than usual and experiencing changes in weight as a result
- Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling tired or slowed down
- Feelings of extreme guilt
- Trouble making decisions
- Low self-esteem
- Relationship problems
- Lots of complaints about headaches, stomach aches, or body aches
- Isolating themselves
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation*
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to assist 24/7.
Other Types Of Episodes
Two other types of episodes that can happen in bipolar disorder are hypomania and mixed episodes. Hypomanic episodes last at least four days in a row. The symptoms are similar to mania, but they're typically less severe. They may not seem to cause any problems for the teen at all, at least in the short term. In fact, teens often get a lot accomplished during hypomanic phases. However, if they engage in risky behavior, hypomania can lead to long-term concerns like unplanned pregnancies and STDs, car accidents, injuries, and more.
In a bipolar episode with mixed features, the teen may have symptoms that fall into both the depressed and manic categories. For example, they might have an extreme amount of energy but feel very sad at the same time.
Related Conditions And Problems
Teens with bipolar disorder often face other challenges that may be directly or indirectly related to their condition. They may, for instance, live with other mental health disorders that can exacerbate or trigger their symptoms. For example, bipolar disorder often co-occurs with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, some 70% of people who have bipolar disorder also have ADHD.
Getting A Diagnosis
The first step to dealing with possible bipolar disorder in teens is typically to seek help from a mental health provider. They may need to interview the teen to make an evaluation. The process will typically start with a rundown of the patient’s medical history as well as a family health history, including discussions about mental health disorders.
Next, a doctor may make referrals for medical testing and treatment if needed. They may have the teen take a diagnostic screening quiz. Your teen’s doctor will likely compare everything they learn from the interview with the diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5. They may be able to provide a diagnosis themselves, or they might refer your teen to a specialist who can.
What Help Is Available?
Help for bipolar disorder can come in many forms. Medications are usually prescribed to control mood or help with other aspects of the disorder. They may help make symptoms more manageable so that a teen can focus on developing strategies for living with bipolar disorder in the long term.
A psychologist or social worker may work with your teen's school to find out how bipolar disorder is affecting the teen there. They sometimes make accommodations to help the child succeed in school despite the challenges they may face.
Many families with a teen who has bipolar disorder benefit from family therapy as well. Talking about the realities and experiences that can stem from living with bipolar disorder can help the family come together to provide better support for the teen. At the same time, the teen can learn to communicate their needs more effectively with their family.
Psychotherapy in general can help your teen learn to deal with the ups and downs that come with this mental health disorder. Your teen can learn to make better decisions and take better care of themselves. Likewise, getting the right help can reduce their chances of experiencing serious side effects or consequences down the road.
No matter what sort of therapy you think your teen may benefit from the most, online therapy options can make receiving professional support fast, easy, and accessible. Not being limited to professionals local to your area can help you find someone who meshes well with your teen and truly understands their needs. Additionally, online therapy may make finding someone to talk to yourself a more straightforward process; there’s no need to commute to and from in-person appointments, which can save you time and money.
Online therapy can be just as effective as traditional options for managing mental health symptoms, even for teens. In fact, one 2022 study found that online cognitive behavioral therapy could successfully treat symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescents aged 11 to 19 years. Getting started with treatment sooner rather than later may help your teen develop the skills they may need to navigate life successfully, all while managing symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder in teens may be hard to spot on your own, though you may be able to pick up on symptoms of mania, hypomania, or depression. But, with the right assistance, you can find out whether your teen may have bipolar disorder and help them get the treatment they deserve.
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