Bipolar disorder is a common mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, concentration, and ability to carry out daily tasks. For example, a person with bipolar disorder may experience periods of high energy or elevated mood, followed by extreme lows and feelings of hopelessness. This condition can be intense, and the signs of bipolar disorder can be hard to ignore.
What Age Can You Get Bipolar Disorder?
For bipolar disorder, the average age of onset is 25 years old. However, it can affect any age and commonly develops between the ages of 15 and 25. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) reports that bipolar disorder is often diagnosed during “late adolescence” (the teenage years) or “early adulthood.” Bipolar symptoms rarely appear in young children and older adults, but it is possible.
Although the symptoms of bipolar disorder are intense, they often go undiagnosed or unaddressed. According to one study, the time between the onset of bipolar disorder and the initial management of it was almost six years. This means many people are living with bipolar disorder, without getting the help they need.
If you are a parent and concerned that your teen has bipolar disorder, it is important to seek help. Educate yourself about the signs of bipolar disorder in teens, and take the necessary steps to get your loved one treatment. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, but it is highly treatable and manageable. As cited by national sources, “Early diagnosis and treatment [of bipolar disorder] can lead to better functioning and well-being over the long term.” Left unaddressed, however, it can lead to dangerous consequences like substance abuse and suicide.
What are the Signs of Bipolar Disorder in Teens?
Teenagers with bipolar disorder will go through periods of “highs” and “lows.” Sometimes, they may be extremely energetic, active, and happier than usual. These are called manic episodes. Those who have bipolar disorder will also experience depressive episodes, characterized by sadness, irritability, and lack of motivation or energy. Episodes can last one to two weeks at time. Usually, these episodes are noticeable and affect a teenager’s home life, social life, and school performance.
This is typically how you can tell the difference between “normal mood swings” or “teen hormones” and bipolar disorder in teenagers. If extreme changes in mood are disrupting your teen’s quality of life, and hindering their ability to carry out daily tasks, then it may be indicative of bipolar disorder.
Here are some signs of bipolar disorder in teenagers, broken into manic and depressive episodes.
Signs of a manic episode in teens:
- Intense feelings of happiness, for long periods of time.
- An overwhelming interest in pleasurable but risky activities.
- Risky or reckless behaviors, exhibiting poor judgement.
- Inflated self-esteem and sense of capability, knowledge, and/or power.
- Heightened energy levels.
- Inability to concentrate or stay focused, due to racing thoughts.
- Talking fast about a lot of different topics.
- Trouble sleeping and not feeling tired.
- Very short temper or more irritable than usual.
- Seeing things that are not there (hallucinations) or believing things that aren’t true (delusions).
Signs of a depressive episode in teens:
- Frequent and seemingly unprovoked sadness.
- Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
- Increased irritability, anger, or hostility.
- Sensitive to failure or rejection.
- Loss of interest in once-loved activities.
- Inability to get out of bed; excessive sleeping.
- Complaints of physical pain, such as headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue.
- Low energy and motivation.
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
- Difficulty communicating or maintaining relationships.
- Thoughts or attempts of suicide.
Now, which symptoms come first? The signs of bipolar disorder can vary by age and individual. Studies show that more than half of people with bipolar disorder experience depressive episodes first. However, one-third of patients experienced both depression and mania as their first symptoms, at the same age.
It’s also important to note that there are different types of bipolar disorder, and each can bring about different symptoms in teenagers. We’ve detailed three common types below.
Three Types of Bipolar Disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder:
This type of bipolar disorder is defined by manic episodes that last for at least seven days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe they require immediate medical care. Depressive episodes also occur with bipolar I disorder, and typically last at least two weeks. However, symptoms of mania and depression may co-occur.
- Bipolar II disorder:
Bipolar II disorder is defined by periodic depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes (which are less severe than manic episodes). During a hypomanic episode, a person may feel good and keep up with their day-to-day life, not feeling as though anything is wrong. Without treatment, this could lead into more severe bipolar I disorder.
- Cyclothymic disorder:
This type of bipolar disorder is characterized by recurring depressive and hypomanic symptoms, but they are not enough or do not last long enough to qualify as “episodes.”
Diagnosing and Treating Bipolar Disorder in Teens
The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder can be intense, but they can also overlap with symptoms of other common conditions in teenagers: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral conduct issues, major depression, anxiety disorders, and sometimes, the hormones and mood swings that are commonly associated with the adolescent years.
If you have read the above symptoms, and are still unsure whether your teen needs help, know that it never hurts to reach out to a professional. Your family doctor, a therapist, or other type of clinical specialist can help you understand your teenager’s symptoms and refer you to help, if needed.
Ask your child’s doctor about a mental health screening, to evaluate whether your teen is struggling with bipolar disorder (or another mental health issue). Your doctor can then refer you to a trained, mental health professional—which is essential for getting a proper diagnosis and getting on the path towards treatment.
Remember, bipolar disorder is highly treatable, especially when caught early in life. Early intervention can set your teenager up for success long-term, and help them go on to finish school, develop their career, and lead happy, independent lives. As stated by the National Institute on Mental Health:
“With treatment, children and teens with bipolar disorder can manage their symptoms and lead full, active lives.”
As a parent, you have the power to help your son or daughter get on the path to recovery. In addition to evaluating your teen’s symptoms, requesting a mental health screening, and coming up with a treatment plan with your provider, we also encourage you to be patient with your teen, and be his or her advocate. Encourage your child to talk about their struggles, and listen with an open mind and heart. Help your teen learn how to have fun, and be patient during the hard days. As your teen enters and works through a treatment program, you can (together, as a family) learn strategies for managing the intense emotions and episodes that come with bipolar disorder. Treatment takes time, but you will find that it is truly the ticket to helping your child feel and stay better.
For more guidance or support, you may always contact Turnbridge for help. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment center for teenagers and young adults. We have clinicians that are specialized in treating bipolar disorder and other co-occurring conditions. We are here for you. Call 877-581-1793 to learn about our programs, or to speak with a specialist.