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Bipolar Disorder in Children & Adolescents

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General Facts:

  1. Bipolar disorder in youth is difficult to recognize and diagnose because it does not fit precisely the symptom criteria established for adults, and because its symptoms can resemble or co-occur with those of other common childhood-onset mental disorders.
  2. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by recurrent episodes of depression, mania, and/or mixed symptom states. These episodes cause unusual and extreme shifts in mood, energy, and behavior that interfere significantly with normal, healthy functioning.
  3. Existing evidence indicates that bipolar disorder beginning in childhood or early adolescence may be a different, possibly more severe form of the illness than older adolescent and adult onset bipolar disorder.
  4. When the illness begins before or soon after puberty, it is often characterized by a continuous, rapid cycling, irritable, and mixed symptom state that may co-occur with disruptive behavior disorders, particularly Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Conduct Disorder (CD).
  5. A child or adolescent who appears to be depressed and exhibits ADHD-like symptoms that are very severe, with excessive temper outbursts and mood changes, should be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist, particularly if there is a history of the illness within the family.
  6. Findings from a study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health show that Bipolar Disorder may be at least as common among youth as among adults.

Diagnosis & Treatment:

Once the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is made, the treatment of children & adolescents is based mainly on experience with adults, since there is still very limited data on the efficacy and safety of mood stabilizing medications in youth.

The essential treatment for this disorder in adults involves the use of appropriate doses of mood stabilizers, most typically lithium and/or valproate, which are often very effeective for controlling mania and preventing recurrences of manic and depressive episodes. Research on the effectiveness of these and other medications in children & adolescents with Bipolar Disorder is on-going. In addition, studies are investigating various forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, to complement medication treatment for this illness in young people.



Manic Syptoms Include:

  1. Severe changes in mood--either extremely irritable or overly silly & elated
  2. Overly-inflated self-esteem; grandiosity
  3. Increased Energy
  4. Decreased need for sleep--able to go with very little or no sleep for days without tiring
  5. Increased talking--talks too much, too fast; changes topics too quickly; cannot be interrupted
  6. Distractibility--attention moves constantly from one thing to the next
  7. Hypersexuality--increased sexual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors; use of explicit sexual language
  8. Increased goal-directed activity or physical agitation
  9. Disregard of risk--excessive involvement in risky behaviors or activities

Depressive Symptoms Include:

  1. Persistent sad or irritable mood
  2. Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  3. Significant change in appetite or body weight
  4. Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  5. Physical agitation or slowing
  6. Loss of energy
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  8. Difficulty concentrating
  9. Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms of Mania and Depression in children & adolescents may manifest themselves through a variety of different behaviors. When Manic, children and adolescents, in contrast to adults, are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive outbursts than to be elated or euphoric. When depressed, there may be many more physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or tiredness, frequent absences from school or poor performance in school, talk of or efforts to run away from home, irritability, complaining, unexplained crying, social isolation, poor communication, and extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure.

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