Factsheet: Bipolar Disorder in ChildrenMany children, and especially adolescents, experience mood swings as a normal part of growing up, but when these feelings persist and interfere with a child’s ability to function in daily life, bipolar disorder could be the cause. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, is a mood disorder marked by extreme changes in mood, energy levels and behavior.
Symptoms can begin in early childhood but usually emerge in adolescence or adulthood. Until recently, young people were rarely diagnosed with this disorder. Yet up to one-third of the 3.4 million children and teens with depression in the United States may actually be experiencing the early onset of bipolar disorder, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Doctors now recognize and treat the disorder in young people, but it is still an under-recognized illness.
Children with bipolar disorder usually alternate rapidly between extremely high moods (mania) and low moods (depression). These mood shifts can produce irritability with periods of wellness between episodes, or the young person may feel both extremes at the same time. Parents who have children with the disorder often describe them as unpredictable, alternating between aggressive or silly and withdrawn. Children with bipolar disorder are at a greater risk for anxiety disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. These "co-occurring" disorders complicate diagnosis of bipolar disorder and contribute to the lack of recognition of the illness in children.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Bipolar disorder begins with either manic or depressive symptoms. Not all children with bipolar disorder have all symptoms. Children with bipolar disorder are likely to have a family history of the illness. If a child you know is struggling with any combination of the symptoms listed below for more than two weeks, talk with a doctor or mental health professional.
Many teens with bipolar disorder abuse alcohol and drugs as a way to escape, and should be evaluated for a mental health disorder. If an addiction develops, it is essential to treat both the mental health disorder and the substance abuse problem at the same time.
What Should Parents and Caregivers Do?
Bipolar disorder is treatable. Early identification, diagnosis, and treatment will help children reach their full potential. Children who exhibit signs of bipolar disorder should be evaluated by a mental health professional who specializes in treating children. The evaluation may include consultation with a child psychiatrist, psychological testing, and medical tests to rule out an underlying physical condition that might explain the child’s symptoms. A comprehensive treatment plan should include psychotherapy and, in most cases, medication. This plan should be developed with the family, and, whenever possible, the child.
For More Information:For help finding treatment, support groups, medication information, help paying for your medications, your local Mental Health America affiliate, and other mental health-related services in your community, please contact us.
If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24 hour crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance.
Page last updated: 2/25/2009