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Compiled by Asanda Mbayimbayi

Bipolar in teens: What are the early signs?

Learn about the characteristics of bipolar disorder and its potential effects on teenagers.

People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of intense sadness and hopelessness (depressive episodes) followed by periods of high energy, euphoria, and impulsivity (manic episodes).

This condition can significantly affect a person’s life, relationships, and overall well-being.

Affinity Health, a health insurer, delves into the nature of bipolar disorder, the early signs to be vigilant for in teenagers, and the crucial significance of seeking professional support.

What is bipolar disorder and how does it affect teens?

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic-depressive illness, is a mental health condition characterised by extreme mood fluctuations.

During adolescence, teenagers with bipolar disorder navigate an additional layer of intense and unpredictable mood swings amid the usual ups and downs.

Their emotional journey becomes a delicate balance between exhilarating highs during manic or hypomanic episodes and profound lows of deep sadness or depression.

Globally, approximately one in every 200 people is affected by bipolar disorder. The condition can often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in teenagers, as symptoms may overlap with regular hormonal changes and typical teenage behaviour.

Additionally, the stigma surrounding mental health issues contributes to underreporting and inaccurate statistics.

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

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What causes bipolar?

The precise cause of bipolar disorder in teenagers is not fully understood. Nonetheless, it is thought to stem from a combination of the following factors:

  • Genetics: Bipolar disorder tends to run in families, indicating a genetic predisposition. A family history of bipolar disorder or other mood disorders increases the likelihood of developing the condition.
  • Neurochemical imbalance: Imbalances in certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, are believed to play a role in the development of bipolar disorder. These imbalances can affect mood regulation and contribute to the disorder’s extreme mood swings.
  • Brain structure and function: Studies have shown that individuals with bipolar disorder may have structural and functional differences in specific brain areas responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control. These differences can impact the brain’s ability to regulate mood effectively.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Fluctuations in hormones during adolescence may contribute to the onset of bipolar disorder in some teenagers. The hormonal changes during puberty can affect mood stability and trigger or exacerbate symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Specific environmental factors have the potential to impact the development of bipolar disorder in vulnerable individuals.

Traumatic experiences, persistent stress, substance abuse, and major life changes can play a role in triggering or reoccurring symptoms.

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Possible bipolar indicators

Identifying the initial signs of bipolar disorder in teenagers is important as it enables prompt intervention and suitable treatment.

Below are several typical cues to be aware of.

  • Extreme mood swings: Adolescents with bipolar disorder may experience intense shifts in mood that are more severe than typical teenage mood swings. These shifts can occur rapidly, with periods of elevated mood, irritability, or euphoria followed by profound sadness or hopelessness.
  • Changes in energy levels: Teens with bipolar disorder may exhibit significant changes in their energy levels. During manic or hypomanic episodes, they may display increased energy, restlessness, and impulsivity. Conversely, during depressive episodes, they may feel lethargic, fatigued, and lacking motivation.
  • Sleep disturbances: Bipolar disorder can disrupt a teenager’s sleep patterns. They may experience insomnia during manic episodes, feeling little need for sleep, or hypersomnia during depressive episodes, sleeping excessively.
  • Changes in appetite and weight: Fluctuations in appetite and weight are common in bipolar disorder. Some teenagers may experience increased appetite and weight gain during depressive episodes, while others may have decreased appetite and weight loss during manic episodes.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Bipolar disorder can affect a teenager’s ability to focus and concentrate, causing them to struggle with completing tasks, maintaining attention, and performing academically.
  • Social withdrawal or agitation: Teens with bipolar disorder may exhibit changes in their social behaviours, withdrawing from social activities they once enjoyed or displaying increased irritability, agitation, or hostility towards others.
  • Impaired judgement: Teens with bipolar disorder may engage in risky or impulsive behaviours, such as reckless driving, excessive spending, or unprotected sex. Their impaired judgement during manic episodes can lead to adverse consequences.

Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health, says these initial signs can differ in their strength and duration from one individual to another.

“Not all teenagers experiencing these symptoms will have bipolar disorder. However, if these signs persist and significantly impact a teenager’s daily functioning, seeking professional evaluation and support from a qualified mental health provider is crucial.

“They can conduct a comprehensive assessment, accurately diagnose your teenager, and develop an individualised treatment plan,” explained Hewlett.

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Treatment for bipolar disorder in teens

Treating bipolar disorder typically involves a blend of medication, therapy, and lifestyle modifications to effectively manage symptoms.

Additionally, parents and caregivers play a vital role in providing support to teenagers with bipolar disorder.

Affinity Health provides the following eight tips to assist in navigating this demanding journey:

  • Educate yourself: Learn about bipolar disorder, its symptoms, and available treatment options. Understanding the condition will empower you to provide informed support.
  • Promote open communication: Create a safe and non-judgemental environment where your teenager feels comfortable discussing their feelings and experiences.
  • Establish a routine: Help your teenager establish a consistent daily routine that includes regular sleep patterns, healthy meals, and structured activities. Maintaining a stable routine can help stabilise their mood and provide a sense of predictability.
  • Encourage self-care: Teach your teenager the importance of self-care practices such as regular exercise, practising relaxation techniques, and engaging in activities they enjoy.
    Encourage them to prioritise their well-being and manage stress effectively.
  • Foster a supportive network: Help your teenager to connect with supportive peers, join support groups, or participate in activities that promote social interaction. A strong support network can provide validation, understanding, and a sense of belonging.
  • Monitor medication: If their medication is prescribed, ensure your teenager takes it as directed and schedule regular check-ups with their healthcare provider to monitor its effectiveness and address any concerns.
  • Seek professional help: Bipolar disorder is a complex condition, and professional guidance is essential. Consult with mental health professionals specialising in adolescent bipolar disorder to ensure your teenager receives appropriate treatment and support.

Parents and caregivers can make a considerable impact on their teenager’s well-being and overall quality of life by remaining watchful for early signs of bipolar disorder in teenagers and taking proactive measures to seek professional help and support.

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