Bipolar Signs & Symptoms

A serious mental health disorder that is characterized by severe fluctuations in mood and subsequent behaviors, bipolar disorder is an illness that can rapidly wreak havoc on a child or adolescent’s life, as well as on the lives of those around him or her. Those who are afflicted by bipolar disorder will experience extreme emotional highs and extreme emotional lows, which can alternate rapidly over brief periods of time, or over prolonged periods of time. These highs and lows can lead those suffering from this illness to go from feelings of euphoria to intense feelings of despair, sometimes within a matter of minutes. The oscillating mood patterns and behaviors that result from those extreme mood swings can lead to significant detriments in a child or adolescent’s ability to function appropriately on a daily basis. The ability to function appropriately at school, adhere to responsibilities or tasks at home, or interact positively in social situation all become greatly hindered as the direct result of bipolar disorder. Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help young people learn to cope with and manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

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Historically, individuals under the age of 18 were not given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder due to the fact that the ways in which symptoms are displayed in young people are not as obvious, nor as similar, to the ways in which they are displayed in adults. Furthermore, there exists a controversy in labeling a child or adolescent with such a severe mental illness when they are at such a young and vulnerable age. For these reasons, statistics on the true prevalence of bipolar disorder amongst children and adolescents is lacking. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is believed to have an estimated prevalence of 0-3% amongst young people.

Causes and Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

The onset of bipolar disorder has been attributed to genetic and environmental influences, as well as a number of other potential risk factors. However, it is important to note that in order for any environmental or other extraneous risk factors to elicit the onset of bipolar disorder, an individual must possess a biological predisposition for the illness. Brief descriptions of these causes as well as a list of potential risk factors are included in the following:

Genetic: Genetic factors are believed to be the strongest determinant in why individuals develop symptoms synonymous with the presence of bipolar disorder. A chemical imbalance in the brain is primarily responsible for the onset of this illness, and such imbalances can heritable in nature. Estimates have shown that individuals who have one biological parent who is afflicted by bipolar disorder are at a 15-25% higher risk of suffering from the illness as well. Furthermore, studies have shown that, when a child has a parent with bipolar disorder and then develops the condition as well, he or she will typically begin to display symptoms approximately 10 years earlier than his or her parent did.

Environmental: When a young person has a biological predisposition for bipolar disorder, there are certain environmental factors that can induce the onset of symptoms. For example, the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol can cause chemical changes to occur in the brain, resulting in the development of bipolar disorder symptoms that may not have presented themselves should those substances have not been abused. Additionally, some professionals in the field believe that experiencing a traumatic event or being the victim of ongoing abuse and/or neglect can also play a role in the development of this mental illness.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of bipolar disorder, depression, or other mental health condition
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Experiencing a traumatic event or series of traumatic events
  • Suffering from abuse and/or neglect

Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Not only will the signs and symptoms that are displayed by youth who are suffering from bipolar disorder vary from person to person, but they will also vary dramatically depending on whether or not individuals are experiencing a manic episode or a depressive episode. Examples of various symptoms that may be exhibited by a youth who is afflicted by bipolar disorder can include, but are not limited to, the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Acting recklessly and impulsively
  • Rapid speech
  • Hypersexuality
  • Explosive, unprovoked, and often violent, temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Manipulative behaviors
  • Hoarding
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors
  • Extreme restlessness / constant fidgeting
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Overtly defiant and oppositional behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Bedwetting
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Heightened states of arousal
  • Significantly disturbed sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Fluctuations in bodily temperature
  • Teeth grinding
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Vocal and motor tics

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Paranoia
  • Chronic night terrors
  • Poor working memory
  • Concentration difficulties / becoming easily distracted
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Episodes of depersonalization
  • Episodes of derealization

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Drastically oscillating moods
  • Prolonged periods of mania
  • Prolonged periods of severe depression
  • Extreme emotional excitability
  • Feelings of elation and euphoria
  • False sense of grandiosity
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Alternating between low and inflated self-esteem
  • Periods of emotional detachment
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Bipolar Disorder

When left untreated, the negative effects of bipolar disorder can be monumental and can cause much devastation on a young person’s life. Examples of various effects that may arise from the presence of bipolar disorder can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Behavioral problems at school, resulting in possible suspension or expulsion
  • Academic failure
  • Chronic, ongoing self-injurious behaviors
  • Engaging in drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Criminal involvement, leading to possible incarceration
  • Disturbed social interactions, resulting in an inability to develop and maintain lasting, healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Pervasive suicidal ideation
  • Making attempts at suicide
  • Experiencing future difficulties with obtaining and maintaining steady employment

Co-Occurring Disorders

Unfortunately, many children and adolescents who are plagued by the symptoms of bipolar disorder also suffer from symptoms of other mental health conditions as well. Examples of conditions that have been known to co-occur alongside bipolar disorder include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Eating disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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