Bipolar disorder can develop at any point during the teenage years. Left untreated, adolescent bipolar disorder can be especially debilitating, often leading to teenage abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs, poor academic and social performance, high-risk behavior and suicide fatalities.
Adolescent Bipolar Symptoms
A teenager with bipolar disorder may appear unusually moody, agitated, distracted and irritable. These symptoms describe a wide range of physical and mental disorders, however, including depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Bipolar disorder symptoms in adolescents resemble those experienced by bipolar adults, including cycles between mania and depression. However, unlike adults, adolescents may experience these severe mood swings multiple times in a day or a week.
Many bipolar teenage girls experience their first episode in conjunction with their first period. Many of these teens find that the severity of adolescent bipolar symptoms fluctuates with their menstrual cycle.
Diagnosing Adolescent Bipolar Disorder
Diagnosing bipolar disorder in adolescents is complicated, due to a lack of standardized diagnostic criteria. The DSM-IV (Diagnostic Criteria for Mental Disorders) only provides criteria for diagnosing adults with bipolar disorder. Fortunately, since adolescent bipolar symptoms are similar enough to those in adults, mental health professionals can usually make an accurate diagnosis.
Disorders often mistaken for teenage bipolar disorder include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Borderline personality disorder
- Conduct disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Untreated Bipolar Disorder in Adolescents
With bipolar disorder, adolescents left untreated may exhibit destructive symptoms such as increased risk taking, early sexual behavior and suicidal tendencies. Teenagers exhibiting signs of suicidal behavior or substance abuse are often screened for bipolar disorder. If alcohol or drug addiction coexists with bipolar disorder, both conditions must be treated for successful recovery.
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Adolescents
Bipolar disorder treatment requires both mood-stabilizing medication and intensive psychotherapy. Medication usually reduces symptoms, thereby allowing therapy to progress.
Almost all bipolar disorder medications are designed with adults in mind. The older the teenager, the less problematic this is. These medications may present certain challenges in younger teenagers. Work with a medical professional to ensure that all medications used are FDA-approved for the patient’s age.
Psychotherapy often includes cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can teach the teenager to monitor and cope with mood swings and symptoms. In addition, family therapy can educate parents and siblings about bipolar disorder and heal interpersonal rifts caused by the pressure of living bipolar disorder.
Discovering bipolar disorder in yourself or a loved one may be shocking. With the proper treatment, however, teenagers with bipolar disorder can overcome these symptoms and reclaim their lives.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2008). Bipolar disorder in children and teens. Retrieved August 9, 2010, from http://www.aacap.org/galleries/FactsForFamilies/38_bipolar_disorder_in_children_and_teens.pdf.
Sheslow, D. (2007). Bipolar disorder. Retrieved August 9, 2010, from http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/bipolar.html.