by Vanessa Bruce Little
Bipolar Disorder is often misunderstood. Although most people have the basic understanding that someone with Bipolar Disorder has sudden and intense mood swings, they often miss the more detailed nuances of the disorder or confuse the fairly typical mood swings of adolescence with something more clinical.
Here’s how to know when it might be something more than just typical adolescent emotions:
First of all, there are two types of Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar I and Bipolar II.
Bipolar I Disorder is when the person experiences periods of Mania (called Manic Episodes). Manic episodes are periods of at least one week where the person has a really elevated and potentially irritable mood, and they behave in very busy and goal-directed ways, even if they don’t seem to be accomplishing much. Someone in a Manic Episode will often:
♦ Have really high self-esteem (to the point of being conceited)
♦ Feel less need for sleep
♦ Talk more than usual
♦ Feel like their thoughts are racing OR have a train of thought that’s hard for someone else to follow
♦ Be easily distracted by irrelevant or unimportant details
♦ Be very focused on accomplishing various tasks – even if they seem to serve no purpose
♦ Engage in risky activities with serious consequences (e.g., unprotected sex, excessive shopping sprees, drug use, bad financial investments)
In Bipolar I Disorder, when the person isn’t experiencing a Manic Episode, they are either experiencing periods of Depression (called Major Depressive Episodes, which look just like the clinical disorder, Depression), periods of Hypomania (called Hypomanic Episodes, which are basically shorter (approximately 4 days) and less severe versions of Manic Episodes), or periods of completely normal mood. How often the person switches between these different episodes depends on the individual, the situation, and how effectively they’re being treated. In Bipolar II Disorder, the person experiences both Hypomanic and Major Depressive Episodes but has not experienced any Manic Episodes.
Bipolar Disorder is highly heritable, which means that biological family members of someone with Bipolar Disorder (I or II) are at increased risk for developing the disorder themselves. It typically develops in the late teens (Bipolar I Disorder) or mid-twenties (Bipolar II Disorder), and affects about 0.6 to 0.8% of the population over the course of a year. Medication can be very effective for someone with Bipolar Disorder, but they will likely need to remain on the medication indefinitely in order to manage their symptoms.
As you can see, the mood changes associated with Bipolar Disorder cause significantly more impairment than your typical adolescent mood swings. The moods/episodes themselves are much more intense and cycling between the two can be quite dramatic. If you’re concerned that your teenager may have Bipolar Disorder (especially if someone in your family has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia), talk to your family doctor.
Other helpful resources:
Vanessa Bruce Little is the Knowledge Translation Lead at TeenMentalHealth.org (IWK Health Centre/Dalhousie University), a role for which she relies heavily on her background in Clinical Psychology, clinical training, and experience working with youth and families with behavioural, emotional, and social issues. In addition to developing the content of many of Teen Mental Health’s resources, Vanessa also coordinates large-scale projects and supervises students from a variety of disciplines. She strongly believes that you have to communicate in a way people will “hear” and that the quality of the content is irrelevant if your audience can’t understand it.