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Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality health cover, explores what bipolar disorder is, highlights the early signs to watch out for in teenagers, and emphasises the importance of seeking professional help and support.

What is Bipolar Disorder and How Does it Affect Teens?

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

During adolescence’s ups and downs, teenagers with bipolar disorder navigate an additional layer of mood swings that can be intense and unpredictable. Their emotional journey becomes a delicate balancing act between moments of exhilarating highs, manic or hypomanic episodes, and deep lows of profound sadness or depression.

In general, bipolar disorder affects approximately one in every 200 people globally. It is important to note that bipolar disorder can often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, particularly in teenagers, as symptoms may overlap with regular hormonal changes and typical teenage behaviour. The lack of awareness and stigma surrounding mental health issues can also contribute to underreporting and inaccurate statistics.

What Causes Bipolar?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder in teenagers is not fully understood. However, it is believed to result from a combination of the following factors:

GeneticsBipolar 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.

Certain environmental factors can influence the development of bipolar disorder in susceptible individuals. Traumatic events, chronic stress, substance abuse, and significant life changes can contribute to the onset or recurrence of symptoms.

Possible Bipolar Indicators

Recognising the early signs of bipolar disorder in teenagers is crucial as it allows for timely intervention and appropriate treatment.

The following are some common indicators to be mindful 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 Judgment: Teens with bipolar disorder may engage in risky or impulsive behaviours, such as reckless driving, excessive spending, or unprotected sex. Their impaired judgment during manic episodes can lead to adverse consequences.

“It is important to note that these early signs may vary in intensity and duration from person to person”, says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health.

“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”.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Teens

Treatment for bipolar disorder often involves a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle adjustments to manage symptoms effectively. Parents and caregivers also play a crucial role in supporting teenagers with bipolar disorder.

Affinity Health offers the following eight tips to help navigate this challenging 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-judgmental 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.

Be Patient and Understanding: Bipolar disorder can be challenging for teenagers and their families. Be patient, understanding, and supportive. Encourage open discussions about their experiences and feelings and be prepared to adapt and adjust as needed.

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.

By being vigilant for the early signs of bipolar disorder in teenagers and taking proactive steps to seek professional help and support, parents and caregivers can make a significant difference in their teenager’s well-being and overall quality of life.

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