Bipolar Disorder Symptoms & Causes

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In-Depth

If your child experiences phases of extreme moods—from bursting with so much energy that he may not be able to sleep or sit still, to crippling depression that leaves him sad and withdrawn—he may have bipolar disorder.

What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic-depressive illness or bipolar affective disorder, is a chronic mental health condition that:

  • gets its name from the extreme mood patterns it causes (going from “high highs” to “low lows”)
  • is highly disruptive, causing serious emotional, behavioral and, at times, physical problems
  • occurs in cycles that last for days or weeks
  • has no clearly defined, single cause, but is believed to be linked to both biological and life experience factors
  • can wax and wane over time
  • has no permanent cure, but is treatable with evidence-based interventions 

Can kids really be bipolar, too?
Yes. While not nearly as common in children as it is in adults, research studies have revealed that bipolar disorder affects as many as 3 percent of all children, and up to 7 percent of children receiving outpatient psychiatric care. (The numbers are even higher in children hospitalized for inpatient psychiatric treatment.)

Bipolar disorder has been diagnosed in children as young as 5. When young children experience symptoms, this is called early-onset bipolar disorder.

What are mood episodes?
A child or adolescent who has bipolar disorder experiences both manic phases (periods of abnormally high energy and activity) and depressive phases (periods of intense sadness, tiredness, irritability or hopelessness) that last days or even weeks before dying down. These periods are known as mood episodes

Sometimes, a child will experience manic and depressive symptoms at the same time. This is called a mixed mood episode.

While all children, and especially adolescents, experience peaks and valleys in their moods and energy levels, the mood episodes of someone with bipolar disorder are very different:

  • Their symptoms last most of the day, every day/
  • They last for long periods of time (for the better part of a week, to several weeks, to even years).
  • They cause serious disruptions to eating, sleeping, schoolwork, home life and social life.
  • They might go away for a while, but almost always come back without proper treatment. 

What are the different types of bipolar disorder?
There are three described varieties of bipolar disorder:  

  • Bipolar I, also referred to as “manic-depressive illness” or “classic” bipolar disorder, is the most serious form. Kids with this form experience manic episodes or mixed episodes that:
    • go on for at least a week
    • are so severe that the child cannot sleep or function properly
    • happen either right before, or right after, a depressive episode that has lasted for two weeks or more—or is serious enough to require hospitalization
       
  • Bipolar II is very similar to Bipolar I, only slightly milder.  It causes manic episodes that seem almost identical to the mania of Bipolar I, but which only last for up to four days and cause slightly less serious symptoms. These milder manic episodes are called hypomania.

    In order to be diagnosed with Bipolar II, a child must experience depressive episodes that last for at least two weeks before or after a distinct period of mania as described above. Bipolar II is a serious condition in its own right, and requires intensive treatment just as Bipolar I does.
     
  • Bipolar Not Otherwise Specified (NOS) is an even milder form of bipolar disorder whose mood episodes don’t last as long, or cause the same severity of symptoms, as Bipolar I or II.

    Although there is specific criteria for a Bipolar NOS diagnosis in adults, the criteria for children and adolescents is less clear. This means that the process of making the diagnosis is more challenging.

Is pediatric bipolar disorder treatable?
Yes. Unfortunately, there is no complete cure for bipolar disorder—but with early diagnosis and careful, multidimensional treatment, the illness can generally be controlled, allowing children and adolescents to return to more normal functioning. 

In the pages that follow, we hope you will find answers to your most pressing questions about bipolar disorder. When you meet with our experts here at Children’s Hospital Boston, we will carefully assess and then fully explain your child’s condition and treatment options. 

Giving kids with mental health problems a voice 
Children’s psychiatrist-in-chief David DeMaso, MD, and members of his team have created the Experience Journal, an online collection of thoughts, reflections and advice from kids and caregivers dealing with both physical illnesses and mental health conditions.  

Causes

What causes bipolar disorder?
No one knows exactly why bipolar disorder develops. Current research has revealed that there are multiple biological and life experience factors that increase the risk of a child developing the disorder: 

  • Genetic factors: Studies have shown that genetic factors contribute to the risk for bipolar disorder by up to 50 percent.

    However, it’s important to note that only 6 percent of children with a parent who has bipolar disorder also develop the condition. The vast majority of parents who have been diagnosed as bipolar do not have a child with the disorder.
     
  • Environmental factors: We know of certain factors that make some children more likely to become depressed, which then puts them at increased risk for developing bipolar disorder. These risk factors may include:
    • poverty
    • ongoing environmental stresses, such as:
      • a parent who is mentally ill or abusing substances
      • harsh or abusive parenting
      • violence or other trauma
    • abusing drugs or alcohol
    • family history of depression
       
  • Brain chemistry/development factors: While we don’t understand the exact mechanisms, we do know that both genetic and environmental risk factors can alter brain chemistry and development.

    The brain has special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that carry messages back and forth and control all of the brain’s activities, including emotions. We believe that the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine are the most likely to be involved in the onset of bipolar disorder; consequently, the medications we use to treat the disorder target these chemical imbalances. 

It’s suspected that the brains of children with bipolar disorder grow and develop differently than those of other children. We are hopeful that current treatment methods—including both medication and talk therapy—can restore some degree of normality to the brain’s chemical balance and development over time.

Signs and symptoms

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
A child or adolescent may have bipolar disorder if he:

  • experiences manic, hypomanic or mixed episodes, accompanied by depressive episode(s)
  • experiences manic symptoms that last for the majority of the day, every day, for at least a week at a time in the case of bipolar I (or for at least four days in the case of bipolar II)
  • experiences depressive episodes that last for at least two weeks at a time (and often last much longer)
  • experiences symptoms that are cyclical, waxing and waning over time 

What are the symptoms of a manic episode?
Manic symptoms can include one or more of the following:

  • feeling and acting as though on a “high”
  • overly animated and active behavior
  • talking very quickly
  • changing topics suddenly/multiple times during a conversation
  • intense aggravation or “jumpiness”
  • becoming completely immersed in one or more new, time-consuming, driven projects
  • not wanting to sleep
  • inability to sleep
  • expressing an unusual/unrealistic degree self-confidence (for example, stating “I’m like a god” or “I’m untouchable—nothing can hurt me”)
  • disregarding or failing to recognize risky situations and behaviors
  • making highly impulsive choices and actions, especially involving sexual activity, spending money and use of drugs or alcohol 

What are the symptoms of a depressive episode?
Depressive symptoms can include:

  • feeling and acting sad, tired and “empty”
  • failing to take pleasure in anything, even favorite activities and interests
  • difficulty with memory and concentration
  • restlessness and irritability
  • sleeping too much or not enough
  • loss of appetite, or overeating in an attempt to feel better
  • thinking of, talking about or threatening suicide

What are the symptoms of a mixed episode?
If a child is going through a mixed episode, he may:

  • be agitated
  • get upset easily or for no apparent reason
  • have trouble falling or staying asleep
  • lose his appetite, or start overeating
  • think of, mention or threaten suicide
  • experience any combination of the above noted symptoms of both mania and depression 

If you suspect your child is considering suicide, always seek help immediately—do not wait. Call 911 or bring your child to the closest emergency room.
 

FAQ 

Q: How common is bipolar disorder in children?
A: It is estimated that more than 3 percent of all children and adolescents have some form of bipolar disorder, which is about half the incidence in adults. 

The most severe form of bipolar disorder, bipolar I, affects 0.5 percent of all children. It is found much more often in children who are either receiving outpatient psychiatric treatment, or who have been hospitalized for mental health care. 

Q: How serious is bipolar disorder?
A: If left untreated, or if treated inadequately, bipolar disorder can be highly disruptive and lead to:

  • failure at school and/or work
  • damaged interpersonal relationships
  • involvement in violence (either as the victim or the perpetrator)
  • financial and legal troubles
  • criminal activity
  • substance abuse
  • attempted or completed suicide

For all of these reasons, prompt and ongoing care from a qualified clinician is a must.

Q: How can I tell if my child or adolescent has symptoms of bipolar disorder or is just going through a “typical mood swing”?
A: Just about every child, and especially adolescents, goes through “mood swings.”  However, a child or teen with bipolar disorder experiences periods of extraordinary high moods and activity levels, called mania, accompanied by (either before, after or during the mania) unusually low moods and activity levels.

These periods occur in cycles and must last for at least several days or a week at a time during the manic phase, and for at least two weeks during the depressive phase. 

Q: Does bipolar disorder cause multiple personalities?
A:
No. People sometimes confuse bipolar disorder with dissociative identity disorder (also referred to as “multiple personality disorder”). However, these are two separate conditions with very different symptoms. 

Q: If my child has bipolar disorder, does that mean her siblings are also at risk?
A:
Yes, they are at some risk—but keep in mind that the majority of siblings will not develop bipolar disorder.

There is clear evidence that bipolar disorder does have a genetic link, and the incidence is especially high (50 percent) among identical twins. If your child has a sibling who is showing possible signs of bipolar disorder, you should seek an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional. 

Q: Can I do anything to keep my child from developing bipolar disorder?
A: Because we still don’t understand exactly how or why bipolar disorder occurs—and because many researchers believe a defect in the genes plays a role—there is no way to prevent the disease altogether.

However, parents who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder themselves (and/or who are dealing with another mental illness, or with substance abuse) can take steps to lessen the likelihood of their children developing the disease by getting prompt treatment from a licensed mental health professional.

Q: Could my child have another mental health condition along with bipolar disorder?
A:
It’s possible, since bipolar disorder, like many mental health disorders, often occurs alongside a second condition.  Bipolar disorder can accompany:

If your child is diagnosed with another condition, it’s essential that both disorders be treated at the same time. Your treating clinician will develop a plan for managing both conditions and meeting all of your child’s individual needs. 

Q: What is the long-term outlook for my child?
A: Bipolar disorder is most often a chronic (long-lasting) mental health condition that requires careful monitoring and ongoing care, often including a long-term medication regimen.

In adults, where there has been more data collected, long-term care that combines medication and “talk therapy” has proven very effective in containing and controlling the illness. Unfortunately, we still don’t have all of the data we need to give a clear picture of the long-term outlook for bipolar disorder in children.

However, we do know that—although there is no cure for pediatric bipolar disorder—as long as your child follows his treatment plan, he can grow up to be healthy, happy and productive despite the challenges of his illness.

Questions to ask your doctor

You and your family play an essential role in your child’s treatment for bipolar disorder. It’s important that you share your observations and ideas with your child’s treating clinician, and that you have all the information you need to fully understand the treatment team’s explanations and recommendations. 

You’ve probably thought of many questions to ask about your child’s condition and prognosis. It’s often very helpful to jot down your thoughts and questions ahead of time and bring them with you, along with a notebook, to your child’s appointment. That way, you will have all of your questions in front of you when you meet with your child’s treating clinician and can make notes to take home with you. (If your child is old enough, you can encourage him or her to write down questions, too.)
 
Initial questions to ask your doctor might include:

  • What criteria did you use in reaching this diagnosis?
  • Is it possible that these symptoms could point to any other condition (for example, another mental health disorder)?
  • What type of bipolar disorder does my child have (bipolar I, bipolar II or bipolar NOS)?
  • What are your treatment goals for my child?
  • How can I encourage my child to talk to me and ask questions about her bipolar disorder and treatment?
  • What role should I play in my child’s treatment?
  • What are the warning signs that my child may be entering a manic or depressive episode?
  • How should I respond if my child is in the midst of a manic episode?
  • What about a depressive episode?
  • How long do you expect my child to need therapy?
  • How can I tell if my child is making progress?
  • How should I involve my child's school in treatment?
  • How should I explain my child's condition to other members of the family?
  • What medication(s) will you prescribe for my child?
  • What are the possible side effects of this medication?
  • How can my family and I best support my child through treatment?
  • Does anything in my child’s day-to-day routine need to change?
  • How long will it take for my child to start feeling “back to normal”?
  • What other resources can you point me to for more information?
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- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

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