The Importance of Raising Awareness Around Teen Bipolar Disorder

Living with bipolar disorder can bring about confusing emotions, and the stigma surrounding this disorder can heighten those emotions. Individuals with bipolar disorder are often portrayed in the media as committing crimes and unable to live independently. This stigma can even be carried into the medical field. Many professionals still refer to bipolar disorder as manic-depressive disorder, even though it was renamed bipolar disorder in the DSM-III in 1980, more than 40 years ago.

The misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder created by society can cause individuals living with bipolar disorder to experience intense shame, preventing them from getting the treatment and support they need to manage their symptoms. Changing the stigma around bipolar disorder is long overdue.

Early Onset Bipolar Disorder

For many years, bipolar disorder was considered a diagnosis made in adulthood. Gradually, the age of onset dropped. Over time, more teens ages 13–18 were showing symptoms of bipolar disorder. More recently, an increasing number of doctors in the field of psychiatry acknowledge that children can have bipolar disorder, too. However, there is a lack of consensus regarding what bipolar disorder looks like in young children. The symptoms of bipolar disorder become more clear in later years with more clear cycles of hypomania or mania and depression.

There is a general acknowledgment of the high incidence of genetic factors in developing teen bipolar disorder. Children and teens with one or more parents or siblings with bipolar disorder are much more likely to be diagnosed themselves. Even those with more distant relatives who are diagnosed are at higher risk for what is called early onset bipolar disorder.

The Importance of a Correct Diagnosis of Teen Bipolar Disorder

In addition to the lack of a consensus on the symptoms of bipolar disorder in children, stigma can also play a part in an incorrect or delayed diagnosis. Some physicians choose to give a “lesser” diagnosis, which only delays proper treatment. However, this delay can be extremely detrimental, as the longer a child or adolescent goes untreated for bipolar disorder, the worse their symptoms and overall outcome are.

Currently, many doctors apply the adult criteria for bipolar to diagnose adolescents and children. However, according to a review published in Psychiatry, more than 70 percent of children and teens with bipolar disorder can rapidly cycle—that is, change moods from high to low—multiple times within a day. The symptoms can be very different in children and adolescents than in adults, so many doctors unfortunately make the wrong diagnosis.

Common incorrect diagnoses that precede a bipolar disorder diagnosis include ADHD and depression, yet the medications used to treat those diagnoses can exacerbate the symptoms of bipolar disorder. The importance of receiving a correct diagnosis initially can make a big difference in symptoms and outcomes, both short- and long-term.

Two Classifications of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar I includes at least one full manic or psychotic episode, with or without one or more major depressive episodes. Manic symptoms can include pressured speech, racing mind, increased energy with a decrease in need for sleep, excessive spending, delusions of grandeur, hypersexuality or unsafe sex, or other uncharacteristic or bizarre behavior.

Bipolar II includes at least one depressive episode and one hypomanic episode, or cycle of elevated mood, less need for sleep, etc. Hypomanic patients can be very creative and productive during the cycle but then “crash” into a depression. Depressive episodes are more common and increasingly severe over a patient’s lifetime with Bipolar II.

Finding the Proper Care for Teen Bipolar Disorder

Many medical doctors and even some psychiatrists believe in the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and are less knowledgeable and less likely to treat a teen’s disorder properly. Psychiatrists and facilities who are well-versed in child or teen bipolar disorder are the most likely and most able to provide proper care.

For an adolescent exhibiting acute symptoms, that could mean a temporary hospitalization. For teens with stubborn or less acute symptoms of bipolar disorder, residential treatment in a facility that specializes in adolescent mental health is ideal. Long-term treatment can include medication, therapy, and more. A child or adolescent who is properly diagnosed and treated at the earliest age possible has the most chance for wellness and success.

Communication is Necessary to Change the Stigma

Mental health, in general, is stigmatized and a subject that most people are not comfortable talking about. Yet individuals with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder need the most support. Changing the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and other mental health diagnoses requires the courage to speak up and educate others.

Your teen can help change the misinformation about bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder have been judged and discriminated against in the past; the fear of being stigmatized is understandable, yet the only way to change a lack of understanding is by educating others. There are organizations, forums, and social media accounts dedicated to supporting teens with bipolar disorder. Being honest about experiences and treatment can not only change the stigma but help others as well.

If you are concerned that your teen may be exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder, contact us today to find out how we can support you in finding the relevant resources that you need.