Bipolar Disorder - What Teens Need to Know

People often throw around terms like “psychotic,” “ADD,” or “anxiety attacks” – using them to describe themselves or others without having a full understanding of what it means to be afflicted with one of these mental health disorders. Bipolar disorder, referred to in the past as manic-depressive disorder, is one of the many illnesses people can tag onto themselves or others without really knowing what the disorder is all about. To make sure that you are educated on what it really means to live with bipolar disorder – whether you worry that you, a friend, or a family member may be living with the disease – read on and learn about the symptoms, causes, treatment options, and available resources that are related to bipolar disorder…


What Is Bipolar Disorder?

For our readers who may not know, bipolar disorder (often referred to in the past as manic-depressive) is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. Everyone can go through ups and downs, however, with bipolar these ups and downs tend to be intense and frequent, and can result in problematic relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. Bipolar typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, however, it can have it’s onset during childhood. Bipolar disorder is a treatable condition, and people with this illness can definitely lead full and productive lives. But it is important to look at bipolar disorder as a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life – just like a person with diabetes or heart disease will have to manage their conditions throughout their lives. 

The dramatic mood swings associated with bipolar disorder, these periods of highs and lows, are called episodes of mania and depression. A person can go from feeling overly high and irritable, to feeling sad and hopeless – and there can be periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior can go along with these changes in mood as well. 


Symptoms of Manic and Depressive Episodes:

Symptoms of a manic episode include:

  • Increased energy, activity or restlessness
  • Excessively high, overly good, euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another
  • Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
  • Little sleep is needed
  • Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
  • Poor judgment
  • Spending sprees
  • A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
  • Increased sex drive
  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications
  • Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong


A person is having a manic episode if an elevated mood is present along with three or more of the other symptoms listed above, nearly every day, for one week or longer. If the mood is irritable, then four additional symptoms must be present for this amount of time. 

Symptoms associated with a depressive episode:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or being slowed down
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Sleeping too much or difficulty sleeping
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss or gain
  • Chronic pain or other persistent bodily symptoms that are not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts


A depressive episode is diagnosed if five or more of these symptoms last for most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of two weeks or longer.


What Is The Cause of Bipolar Disorder?

The exact causes of bipolar disorder are not currently known. Professionals speculate that there is no one factor – but a specific combination of factors that act together to produce this mental illness. These factors most likely include:


  • Biochemical issues: High-tech imaging studies on people with bipolar disorder indicate that people living with this illness have physical changes in their brains. It is also thought that the naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are tied to mood, may play as role. Some scientists believe that bipolar disorder may result from the premature death of brain cells that deal with mood and emotion. Hormonal imbalances might also be involved.


  • Genetic factors: There are some studies which have shown that bipolar disorder is more common in people whose biological family members have the condition. Researchers are currently trying to find the genes that may be involved in causing bipolar disorder.


  • Environment: While the influence may not be as great as biochemical issues or genetics, environment is thought to influence the illness. This is because some studies of identical twins have shown one twin with the condition while the other doesn’t have it – indicating that more than genetics must be involved. Environmental causes may include issues around self-esteem, significant loss, or high stress. It is also believed that certain types of illicit drug use can trigger bipolar episodes, such as cocaine or methamphetamine use.


What Is The Course of Bipolar Disorder?

People diagnosed with bipolar disorder tend to experience episodes of mania and depression throughout their lives. Between episodes, most people are free of symptoms, but there are people who will experience some residual symptoms. 

People will bipolar disorder can lead healthy and productive lives when the illness is effectively treated. However, when bipolar disorder goes untreated, the natural course of the disorder tends to worsen. Manic and depressive episodes often become more frequent and more severe without treatment.


Treating Bipolar Disorder:

There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but the treatment options available today can be significantly helpful for most people living with the disorder. The important thing to remember is that since bipolar disorder is a recurrent illness, long-term preventative treatment is strongly recommended. A combination of medication and psychosocial treatment tends to be the most effective treatment. The disorder will also be much better controlled if the treatment is continuous rather than on and off.


If a person is seeking treatment for bipolar disorder, it is recommended that he/she meet with a psychiatrist to be evaluated for psychotropic medications. Medications for this illness are often referred to as “mood stabilizers.” It is also suggested that a person with bipolar meet with a therapist (licensed social worker, psychologist, or licensed professional counselor) for individual, family, and/or group therapy. “Talk” therapy can be very helpful in providing support, education, and guidance for individuals dealing with the disease, as well as their families. Therapy can help to increase mood stability, decrease the number of hospitalizations, and improve functioning in various areas. 

Charting mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events can be very helpful in managing bipolar. It can help individuals with the disease and their families better understand how the illness particularly affects them, and it can help the treating doctors to better track and treat the illness. 

It is important to remember that there are various medical and psychological illnesses where the symptoms involved closely resemble that of bipolar disorder. To ensure that the proper course of treatment is pursued, other conditions must be ruled out so that an accurate diagnosis can be attained. Medical issues that can be confused with bipolar disorder include head trauma, thyroid problems, and epilepsy. Psychological issues can include ADHD, substance abuse, panic disorder, and schizophrenia. 


Friends and Family Members of the Bipolar Patient

Very often people living with bipolar disorder need help to go and get the treatment they need. Many people with this illness do not realize how impaired they are, may blame their problems on things other than the illness, or might even find secondary gains from the mania they experience – so they do not seek out help. Encouragement from family, friends, and even family physicians is often important to help people seek out the treatment they need. This may mean taking people to their appointments for initial evaluations and providing ongoing support throughout treatment. It may mean hospitalizing a person (maybe even against their will) if they are in a manic or depressive episode and are a threat to themselves of others. 


Like other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder can be hard on spouses, family members, friends, employers, and teachers. It is recommended that family members and friends seek out sources where they can receive education about the disease and support for how this illness indirectly affects them. 



Where To Go For Help

If you live in northern New Jersey and need help finding a therapist you can call the Access Center from Atlantic Behavioral Health at 888-247-1400.  You can also contact your insurance company to get a list of in-network mental health providers or check with your school social worker or psychologist to get a list of referrals in your area. 

Many people with bipolar disorder benefit from joining support groups such as those sponsored by the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA), the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), and the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). Families and friends can also benefit from support groups offered by these organizations. 

The following organizations are also available to provide information and/or referral information:

Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation
(847) 256-8525

National Alliance on Mental Illness
1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

National Institute of Mental Health

Mental Health America
1-800-969-NMHA (6642)