Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens

Topic Overview

What is bipolar disorder in children and teens?

When children older than age 6 or teens have bipolar disorder, they have mood swings with extreme ups and downs. When they are up, they have brief, intense outbursts or feel irritable or extremely happy (mania) several times almost every day. They have a lot of energy and a high activity level. When they are down, they feel depressed and sad.

In the past, experts thought bipolar disorder was the same in children and adults. But symptoms in children and teens are different from those in adults, and they need different treatment.

What causes bipolar disorder?

Experts don't fully understand what causes bipolar disorder.

It seems to run in families. Your child has a greater risk of having it if a close family member such as a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister has it. Parents may wonder what they did to cause their child to have bipolar disorder. But there is nothing a parent can do to cause or prevent it.

What are the symptoms?

Children and teens with bipolar disorder have mood swings with extreme ups (mania) and downs (depression). These intense moods quickly change from one extreme to another without a clear reason. Some children may briefly return to a normal mood between extremes. Many children change continuously between mania and depression, sometimes several times in the same day. Sometimes children with bipolar disorder have symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time.

Times of mania or depression may be less obvious in children and teens than in adults.

  • During a time of mania, children and teens may:
    • Feel irritable and throw violent temper tantrums.
    • Seem extremely happy and have high energy levels.
    • Touch their genitals, use sexual language, and approach others in a sexual way.
    • Not sleep much and go about the house late at night looking for things to do.
    • Talk very fast.
  • During a time of depression, children and teens may:
    • Say they feel empty, sad, bored, or down.
    • Complain of headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or fatigue.
    • Often spend time alone and may easily feel rejected or criticized.
    • Move very slowly.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed in children and teens?

This disorder can be hard to diagnose in children and teens. The symptoms can look a lot like the symptoms of other problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alcohol and drug abuse problems, or conduct disorder. Bipolar disorder can often occur along with these problems.

If your doctor thinks your child or teen may have bipolar disorder, he or she may ask questions about your child’s feelings and behavior. Your doctor may also give you and your child written tests to find out how severe the mania or depression is. The doctor may do other tests (such as a blood test) to rule out other health problems. He or she may ask if your family has any history of mental illness or problems with drugs or alcohol. Any of these problems can be linked to bipolar disorder.

Why is early diagnosis of bipolar disorder important?

Children with this disorder are more likely to have other problems. These include alcohol and drug abuse, trouble in school, running away from home, fighting, and even suicide. Treating the disorder as early as possible may keep your child from having these problems.

Watch for the warning signs of suicide, which change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include thinking too much about death or suicide. Watch also for things that can trigger a suicide attempt such as a recent breakup of a relationship or the loss of a parent or close family member through death or divorce.

How is it treated?

The mood changes that come with bipolar disorder can be a challenge. But with the right treatment, they can be managed well. Treatment usually includes both medicine (such as mood stabilizers) and counseling.

An important part of treatment is making sure your child takes his or her medicine. Children and teens with this disorder sometimes stop taking their medicines when they feel better. But without medicine their symptoms usually come back.

Medicines for bipolar disorder in adults have been well studied. But not much research has been completed about how the medicines work and if they are safe for children and teens.

Accepting that your child has bipolar disorder can be hard. The disorder can be a serious, lifelong problem. Your child will need long-term treatment and will need to be watched carefully. By working with your child's doctor, you can find a treatment that works for your child.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about bipolar disorder in children and teens:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with child bipolar disorder:

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  Bipolar disorder in children: Helping your child prevent manic episodes

Cause

The cause of bipolar disorder is not well understood.

Bipolar disorder seems to run in families. Your child is at greater risk of having bipolar disorder if a close family member such as a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister has the disorder.

Stressful or traumatic events may trigger episodes of mania or depression in a child with bipolar disorder. While it is normal for such events to cause mood changes, these reactions are much more extreme for children with bipolar disorder.

Sometimes symptoms of mania occur as a result of another medical condition, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or multiple sclerosis. Symptoms can also develop as a side effect of some medicines, such as corticosteroids or antidepressants. Using drugs or alcohol, consuming too much caffeine, or not getting enough sleep can also trigger a manic episode.

Symptoms

All types of bipolar disorder consist of cycles of mania (or hypomania, a less severe form of mania) and depression. The different types of bipolar disorder are based on whether a person has more severe symptoms of mania or depression.

  • With bipolar I disorder, moods swing between mania and depression, sometimes with periods of normal mood between extremes. Some children with type I bipolar disorder have episodes of mania and are hardly ever depressed.
  • With bipolar II disorder, depression is more prominent than mania, and manic episodes may be less common and less severe.

Children and young adolescents with bipolar disorder tend to have rapid-cycling or mixed cycling types of bipolar disorder—meaning that the cycles between depression and mania occur quickly (rapid cycling), sometimes within the same day, or that symptoms of both mania and depression occur at the same time (mixed cycling).

Following are some common symptoms of bipolar disorder in children and teens.1

Symptoms of depression

  • Continuous sad or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest in activities the child enjoyed in the past, such as hobbies, sports, games, or friends
  • Significant changes in appetite or body weight (weight loss or gain)
  • Sleeping too much or too little or having trouble falling asleep
  • Slowed body movements or restlessness
  • No energy or loss of energy
  • Inappropriate feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts or talk of death or suicide

The warning signs of suicide change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include losing interest in their usual activities or becoming fascinated with death or suicide.

Manic symptoms

  • Severe changes in mood from being extremely irritable to overly silly and elated
  • Too much energy, such as the ability to keep going without tiring while the child's peers are tiring
  • Decreased need for sleep, such as going for days with very little sleep and not being tired
  • Talking too much or too fast, changing topics too quickly, and not allowing interruptions
  • Increased distraction and constantly moving from one thing to another
  • Grandiosity, such as inflated self-esteem or a belief in unrealistic abilities or powers
  • Increased sexual thoughts, feelings, activity, and use of sexual language (hypersexuality)
  • Increased obsession with reaching goals or becoming involved in too many activities
  • Risky, wild, thrill-seeking behavior

During severe episodes of mania, your child may suffer from symptoms of psychosis, such as having hallucinations or delusions of grandeur (for example, telling people that a rock band is coming to his or her birthday party).

Bipolar disorder frequently occurs along with other conditions (such as conduct disorder). And each condition needs appropriate evaluation and treatment.

Untreated bipolar disorder can lead to suicide. The warning signs of suicide change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

What Happens

Often the first signs of bipolar disorder are severe moodiness, unhappiness, or other symptoms of depression. It is common for children with bipolar disorder to be diagnosed first with only depression and then later to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a cycle of mania or hypomania (a less severe form of mania). For more information on depression, see the topic Depression in Children and Teens.

A first manic or hypomanic episode can be triggered by a stressful situation or may occur without an obvious cause. It can also be started by certain medicines used to treat other conditions. Drugs (such as antidepressants or stimulants) that are used to treat depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are sometimes prescribed to children who have bipolar disorder but who have not yet been correctly diagnosed. These drugs can trigger sudden bouts of mania, sometimes with bizarre, aggressive, or psychotic behavior. But these medicines, when they are combined with a mood-stabilizing drug, are sometimes effective for children who have bipolar disorder.

In adults with bipolar disorder, mood swings usually occur over weeks or even months. In children, cycles usually occur more rapidly, sometimes within the same day (rapid, ultra rapid, or ultradian cycling). Frequently, children with bipolar disorder have difficulty getting going in the morning but then have intense energy later in the day. Often the mood shifts are continuous, rarely returning to a normal mood between extremes. Sometimes elements of depression and mania or hypomania may be present at the same time (a mixed state). These rapid and severe mood changes may make your child appear constantly irritable. And they can significantly interfere with your child's ability to function at school, at home, and with peers.

Children who have mania can be more irritable and prone to temper tantrums or destructive outbursts than adults who have mania. In a depressive episode, children may complain of headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or fatigue. They miss school often or talk about running away from home. They become socially isolated and overly sensitive to any kind of rejection or criticism.

While all teens may be rebellious or make bad choices from time to time, teens with bipolar disorder are more likely to show poor judgment and take risks such as breaking the law or having unprotected sex. Also, teens who have bipolar disorder are more likely during manic episodes to believe they are more powerful or important than they really are (delusions of grandeur). A teen in a depressive episode may withdraw from social activities, do poorly in school, and have problems concentrating and sleeping.

Obsession with sex (hypersexuality) is common in children and teens who have bipolar disorder. Even young children may touch themselves, use sexual language, and approach others in a sexual way. Adolescents with bipolar disorder may be obsessed with sexuality and engage in risky sexual behavior. Hypersexual behavior is common in children who have been sexually abused. But many children with bipolar disorder experience hypersexuality without having been molested.

People sometimes confuse bipolar disorder in children with other conditions with similar symptoms, such as oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorders, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Often children with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed with another such disorder or are diagnosed with one of those conditions and bipolar disorder. Although there is some evidence of a link between ADHD and bipolar disorder, the conditions have distinct features that you can usually identify.

A child or teen with bipolar disorder may behave irresponsibly, take risks and not think about the consequences, or have difficulty making and keeping friends. Often older children and teens with undiagnosed bipolar disorder use alcohol and drugs. If your child is using drugs or alcohol and having behavioral problems, you may want to schedule an evaluation to find out whether your child is suffering from a condition such as bipolar disorder.

In young children

Bipolar disorder in children may be different than in teens and adults. When depressed, your child may throw severe temper tantrums, become easily frustrated, and become explosively angry. Irritability and temper tantrums can also be part of manic episodes. Young children with bipolar disorder may have more extreme happy or silly moods than most children have.

In children, it can be hard to tell the difference between a depressive and a manic episode, especially if cycles are rapid or symptoms of depression and mania occur together. Irritability may progress into severe, seizure-like temper tantrums when the child is told "no." A bipolar child may kick, bite, hit, and make hateful comments, including threats and curses. During tantrums, which may last for hours, a child may destroy property or become increasingly violent.

In older children and adolescents

During a manic episode, an older child or adolescent may have high energy levels and feelings of extreme happiness (euphoria). He or she may need less sleep and may talk rapidly and continuously. He or she may be aggressive and get into fights and may use sexual language when it is not appropriate or engage in risky sexual behavior. An adolescent with bipolar disorder may suffer consequences from manic behavior such as suspension from school, arrest as a result of fighting or drug use, or an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD) from unsafe sexual behavior.

During depressive episodes, an adolescent may become withdrawn or quiet, do poorly in school, and stop participating in activities he or she enjoyed in the past, such as a sports team. Your adolescent may cry often, sleep too much, and feel that he or she doesn't belong. He or she may speak of death or suicide. You should take any threats of suicide seriously, because children with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of suicide.

Substance abuse in adolescents who have bipolar disorder is common. Your child's doctor may recommend an evaluation for both substance abuse problems and bipolar disorder if your child appears to suffer from either condition.

Watch for the warning signs of suicide. These change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

What Increases Your Risk

Your child's risk of developing bipolar disorder or other mood disorders increases if the child:

  • Has a close relative such as a parent, sibling, or grandparent with bipolar disorder or another mood disorder.
  • Has a family history of problems with alcohol or drugs. This may be an indication of self-medication for a psychological disorder, such as bipolar disorder.
  • Has had several episodes of major depression. At least 15% of adolescents with recurring depression are later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.1

Certain factors can trigger depressive or manic episodes in your child, such as:

  • Erratic sleep or changes in daily routines.
  • Treatment with antidepressants, which can increase the risk for a manic episode.
  • Stressful life events.
  • Not taking medicines as prescribed.
  • Using alcohol or drugs (substance abuse).
  • Entering puberty.

When To Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:

  • Your child makes threats or attempts to harm himself or herself or another person, or shows warning signs of suicide.
  • Your child hears voices (has auditory hallucinations).
  • You are a young person and you feel you cannot stop from harming yourself or someone else.

Watchful Waiting

Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If you think your child may have bipolar disorder, watchful waiting is not appropriate. Schedule an appointment with your child's doctor for evaluation.

If your child is currently receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, watchful waiting may be enough if a mood episode is not severe and has just started and your child is taking proper medicines. If your child's depressive or manic mood symptoms have not improved in 1 to 2 weeks, call your doctor.

Watch for the warning signs of suicide. These change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

Who To See

It is best to establish a long-term relationship with your child's care providers so that when a depressive or manic episode occurs, the care providers can recognize the changes in the child's behavior and provide quick treatment advice.

Since bipolar disorder in childhood and adolescence is just beginning to be recognized and treated, you may wish to find a doctor who has special training in children's mental health conditions or experience treating bipolar disorder in young people. Bipolar disorder can be diagnosed and treated by a health professional such as a:

Your child may also benefit from professional counseling to help deal with mood changes and the effects bipolar disorder has on your child's life. A counselor with special training in child mood disorders or experience treating child bipolar disorder may be most helpful. Counseling for bipolar disorder can be provided by a:

Other health professionals who also may be trained in counseling include:

Who to see for family member support

If you are a family member of a child with bipolar disorder, it is very important to get the support and help you need. Living with or caring for someone who has bipolar disorder can be very disruptive to your own life. Manic episodes can be particularly difficult. It may be helpful to seek your own counselor or therapist to help you.

Also, some national support organizations may have a local chapter in your area or provide information on the Internet. Examples of such groups include the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Exams and Tests

There is no laboratory test to diagnose bipolar disorder. Doctors make the diagnosis through a combination of:

  • A medical history, asking questions to help identify other past and present health conditions that could cause the symptoms.
  • A family history to identify bipolar disorder, other mood disorders, or substance abuse problems in close relatives. (All of these conditions are linked to bipolar disorder.)
  • A physical exam, which can rule out other conditions with similar symptoms (such as hyperthyroidism).
  • A mental health assessment, which can help identify your child's current mental state and the severity of depression or mania.
  • Other written or verbal mental health tests.

In young children, the symptoms of mania are more than just being a bother to adults and other children now and then. For example, many children can be silly and giggly to a point that it bothers their parents sometimes. This is not considered to be a sign of mania. But if a child is silly and giggly for several hours, several times almost every day, and this is interrupting the family's usual routine, then it may be a symptom of mania.

Before prescribing medicine to treat bipolar disorder, your doctor will check your child for possible suicidal behavior by asking a few questions. See a list of questions your doctor may ask your child.

Treatment Overview

Although mood changes and other symptoms associated with bipolar disorder are challenging, they can be managed effectively. Treatment usually includes medicines (such as mood stabilizers) and professional counseling, and often a combination of both is needed.

Bipolar illness is a serious disorder that has a big impact on both the child and his or her family. Successful treatment requires that the child and family members know what happens in bipolar disorder and that the family members help make sure that the child follows the treatment.

It can take time for you and your child to accept that the child has a serious, long-term condition that requires ongoing treatment and constant monitoring. But keep in mind that by working with your child's doctor, you and your child can find effective treatment for the condition.

You and your child's doctor can discuss which treatment is right for your child. Older children and teens may want to participate in their own treatment decisions.

Initial treatment

The first step in determining appropriate treatment for your child with bipolar disorder is evaluating the severity of his or her symptoms. If your child's behavior is suicidal, aggressive, reckless, or dangerous, or if he or she is out of touch with reality (psychotic) or unable to function, the child may need a period of hospitalization. Also, many medicines can make the symptoms of bipolar disorder worse, and if your child is taking one of these, he or she may need to taper off and stop the medicine. This should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.

Initial treatment usually includes medicines and counseling.

Medicines. Medicines most often used include:

  • Mood stabilizers, such as lithium (for example, Eskalith or Lithobid), divalproex (Depakote), carbamazepine (for example, Tegretol), lamotrigine (Lamictal), or valproate (Depacon).
  • Antipsychotics, such as aripiprazole (Abilify) or risperidone (Risperdal), which your doctor may combine with a mood stabilizer for more effective control of manic episodes.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (for example, Prozac), or other types of antidepressants to control episodes of depression. While antidepressants can be helpful for some children, they might also trigger mania. A doctor will usually prescribe antidepressants with other medicines that help regulate mood, and he or she must carefully monitor the child.

Before prescribing medicine to treat bipolar disorder, your doctor will check your child for possible suicidal behavior by asking a few questions. See a list of questions your doctor may ask your child.

Professional counseling. Counseling works best when symptoms of bipolar disorder are controlled with medicines. Several types of therapy may be helpful, depending on the age of the child. These include:

Ongoing treatment

Ongoing treatment of bipolar disorder includes long-term treatment with medicines and may include professional counseling.

Some children and teens do not respond to the first medicine they try, and they may need to try several different medicines to find relief from the symptoms. A combination of medicine and professional counseling may be the most effective treatment.

An important part of ongoing treatment is making sure your child takes the medicine as prescribed. Often people who feel better after taking bipolar medicine for a period of time may feel that they are cured and no longer need treatment. But when a person stops taking medicine, symptoms usually return, so it is important that your child follows the treatment plan.

Medicines for bipolar disorder have side effects that need to be managed. Some things you cannot change, such as increased urination (common with lithium). But you can deal with some side effects like weight gain (common with several medicines used to treat bipolar disorder) by increasing exercise and reducing calorie intake. You can work with your child and his or her doctor to find ways of coping with side effects. If side effects from a medicine are intolerable, the doctor may have to change the dose or the medicine.

Some medicines, such as lithium carbonate (Eskalith or Lithobid, for example) and divalproex (Depakote), require ongoing blood monitoring every few months. Your doctor may have to adjust the amount of medicine your child is taking so your child has the right amount of medicine for treatment.

During initial treatment, your doctor may prescribe a medicine such as an antipsychotic for a short time to help your child deal with immediate symptoms. After your child's long-term medicines kick in and symptoms improve, he or she will need to taper off and stop the short-term medicine.

Other ongoing treatment includes:

  • Academic adjustments. If your child is in school, he or she may need a reduced homework load or school schedule during severe depressive or manic episodes. You can work with the school to find ways to help your child maintain performance requirements until the symptoms are under control.
  • Relaxation and exercise. Steps your child can take at home to improve symptoms include:
    • Getting regular physical exercise, such as swimming or walking, to help reduce stress.
    • Avoiding the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeinated beverages, and energy drinks.
    • Eating a balanced diet.
    • Getting enough sleep and keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle. (Children and teens need more sleep than adults.)

Sometimes treatment for other conditions can make your child's bipolar disorder worse. For example, treating depression with antidepressants can trigger a manic episode or make one worse. Treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with stimulants may also trigger severe mania, depression, and even psychosis (loss of touch with reality). Treatment with corticosteroids for conditions such as asthma may also trigger a manic episode. Medicines that intensify bipolar symptoms may need to be stopped or changed to a different dose or medicine. Sometimes an additional medicine (such as a mood stabilizer) can solve the problem. But each child responds to medicines differently. And it may take several tries before your doctor can identify an effective medicine or combination of medicines for your child's conditions.

Learning as much as you can about child and teen bipolar disorder may help you recognize mood changes in your child as they begin to occur. Catching and treating these mood changes early may help reduce the length of the manic or depressive episode and improve the quality of your child's life.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

If your child's condition gets worse while he or she is being treated for bipolar disorder (including medicines, counseling, and lifestyle changes), the doctor may give additional treatment. You and your doctor should:

  • Make sure your child is taking medicines as prescribed and following other treatment recommendations.
  • Determine whether ongoing symptoms are caused by another disorder (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder), and treat the other condition if necessary.
  • Identify and reduce stresses that may be making symptoms worse.
  • Adjust the dose of medicines if the current dose is not effective.
  • Add or change medicines if the current ones are not working.

A brief hospital stay may be necessary, especially if your child is showing any warning signs of suicide. The warning signs of suicide change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

For older children with severe bipolar symptoms who have not responded to medicines, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option. In this procedure, brief electrical stimulation to the brain is given through electrodes placed on the head. The stimulation produces a short seizure that is thought to balance brain chemicals.

Prevention

Bipolar disorder cannot be prevented. But there are ways to help manage or prevent mood changes.

The first and most important preventive measure is to make sure your child takes his or her medicines as directed. Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition and generally requires lifelong treatment with medicines.

Reducing stress, getting regular sleep and exercise, and staying on a daily routine may help prevent mood swings and can help with the symptoms of depression and mania.

Home Treatment

There are steps you can take at home to reduce your child's symptoms of bipolar disorder.

  • Keep your child's room quiet, and have your child go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Control the amount of stress in your child's life. You may need to seek ways to help your child reduce academic requirements during severe mood swings.
  • Learn to recognize the early warning signs of your child's manic and depressive mood episodes.

Steps your child can take to help control moods include:

  • Getting enough exercise. During a depressive episode, your child may feel like doing only gentle exercises, such as taking a walk or swimming.
  • Getting enough sleep and keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Eating a balanced diet.
  • Avoiding the use of alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse makes bipolar disorder worse.
  • Avoiding beverages that contain caffeine, including coffee, tea, colas, and energy drinks.
  • Learning to recognize the early warning signs of manic and depressive mood episodes.
  • Asking for help from friends and family when needed.
Click here to view an Actionset. Bipolar disorder in children: Helping your child prevent manic episodes

For some children with bipolar disorder, depression can cause debilitating symptoms. For information about managing childhood depression, see the topic Depression in Children and Teens.

Medications

While medicines to treat bipolar disorder have been well studied for use in adults, there are few long-term studies that confirm the effectiveness and safety of mood stabilizers or antipsychotics in children and adolescents who have bipolar disorder. Be sure to use all medicines exactly as your child's doctor has prescribed them. If your child has intolerable side effects from any medicine, call your doctor immediately.

Medication Choices

Medicines most often used to treat bipolar disorder in children and adolescents include:

  • Mood stabilizers, such as lithium (for example, Eskalith or Lithobid), divalproex (Depakote), carbamazepine (for example, Tegretol), lamotrigine (Lamictal), or valproate (Depacon).
  • Antipsychotics, such as olanzapine (Zyprexa), risperidone (Risperdal), or aripiprazole (Abilify). Antipsychotics can be used alone, or they may be combined with mood stabilizers for more effective control of manic episodes.
  • Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like fluoxetine (Prozac, for example), to control episodes of depression. While antidepressants can be helpful for some children with bipolar disorder, they can also trigger mania. Doctors usually prescribe antidepressants along with mood stabilizers or antipsychotics to help prevent a manic episode. And the doctor needs to carefully monitor the child for mood changes.

Before prescribing medicine to treat bipolar disorder, your doctor will check your child for possible suicidal behavior by asking a few questions. See a list of questions your doctor may ask your child.

What To Think About

Deciding which medicines to use to treat bipolar disorder in children and adolescents can be a complicated issue. Be sure to discuss all the options and side effects with your child's doctor. Your child may have to try several medicines or combinations of medicines before finding what works best. Some medicines that seem to work at first may not work in the long term. Carefully monitoring the effects of medicines is a process that is essential in identifying what is working and what may need to be changed.

If the doctor prescribes the mood stabilizer lithium carbonate, your child will need regular blood tests to monitor the amount of lithium in the blood. Too much lithium may lead to serious side effects. Your child will also need regular blood tests to monitor the amount of carbamazepine and divalproex in the blood when using these medicines.

When you and your child's doctor are deciding which types of medicines to use in the treatment of bipolar disorder, consider:

  • The side effects of each medicine and how well your child can tolerate them.
  • How often your child will need to take the medicines.
  • Whether your child is being treated for other illnesses or disorders and how those medicines will interact with medicines for bipolar disorder.
  • Whether your child has used any of the medicines before and whether they worked.

FDA Advisory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. The FDA does not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when the doses are changed.

Surgery

There is no surgery to treat bipolar disorder.

Other Treatment

Most children who have bipolar disorder need medicine. But other forms of treatment used along with medicine play an important role in balancing mood and improving quality of life. Counseling, education about the disorder, and stress reduction can help children who have bipolar disorder.

Other Treatment Choices

Counseling along with medicine has been used effectively to manage bipolar disorder. Types of therapy that counselors use to treat bipolar disorder include:

In some cases, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option. In this procedure, brief electrical stimulation to the brain is given through electrodes placed on the head. The stimulation produces a short seizure that is thought to balance brain chemicals.

Complementary therapy

Complementary medicine is a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along with standard medical treatment. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils have been getting some attention as a possible complementary treatment of bipolar disorder. But more research is needed to prove the effectiveness of omega-3 fatty acids in treating this condition in children, adolescents, and adults.

What To Think About

Deciding which medicines to use to treat child and teen bipolar disorder is an important decision for you, your child, and your child's doctor. Both you and your child need to know how taking the medicines and not taking the medicines will affect the child's life. To avoid a return of depressive or manic episodes, be sure your child continues to take any medicines prescribed.

Your child should establish a long-term relationship with a doctor both of you like. The doctor will then be able to help recognize personality changes that indicate when your child is moving into a mood episode. Getting early treatment can reduce the length of the mood episode.

Encourage your family to seek support also. Bipolar disorder greatly affects family members. They will need to know about the disorder and what they can do to help the child, as well as themselves, in dealing with the disorder.

Teens (and adults) with bipolar disorder are at a high risk for suicide. You should talk to your teen about his or her feelings and watch for any self-destructive thinking or warning signs of suicide, such as making suicidal statements or having a preoccupation with death. If your child is suicidal, immediately call 911 or contact other emergency services.

Overdosing on medicine is the most common way teens attempt suicide. But your child is at increased risk for a completed suicide if you have a gun in your home. If your child is depressed, remove all guns (even if they are locked up) and potentially fatal medicines from your home, especially if your child has shown any warning signs of suicide.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
730 North Franklin Street
Suite 501
Chicago, IL  60610-7224
Phone: 1-800-826-3632 includes a hotline for help with depression and bipolar disorder
(312) 642-0049
Fax: (312) 642-7243
Web Address: www.dbsalliance.org
 

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance publishes brochures, books, and videotapes about the treatment of mood disorders, all available free of charge or for a nominal fee. It also has an information and referral line, and its Web site contains helpful information.


Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA  22311
Phone: 1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression
(703) 684-7722
Fax: (703) 684-5968
TDD: 1-800-433-5959
Web Address: www.mentalhealthamerica.net
 

Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its Web site has information about mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress, bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether your symptoms are related to depression.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Boulevard
Suite 300
Arlington, VA  22201-3042
Phone: 1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264) hotline for help with depression
(703) 524-7600
Fax: (703) 524-9094
TDD: (703) 516-7227
E-mail: info@nami.org
Web Address: www.nami.org
 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a national self-help and family advocacy organization dedicated solely to improving the lives of people who have severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. NAMI focuses on support, education, advocacy, and research. The mission of the organization is to "eradicate mental illness and improve the quality of life of those affected by these diseases."


National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
6001 Executive Boulevard
Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD  20892-9663
Phone: 1-866-615-6464 toll-free
(301) 443-4513
Fax: (301) 443-4279
TDD: 1-866-415-8051 toll-free
E-mail: nimhinfo@nih.gov
Web Address: www.nimh.nih.gov
 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders, and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health professionals or treatment for mental health problems.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
1-888-628-9454 Spanish
TDD: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)
Web Address: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service. Crisis centers are located in 130 locations across the United States. Callers are routed to the closest provider of mental health and suicide prevention services.


References

Citations

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2000). Bipolar disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text rev., pp. 382–397. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Other Works Consulted

  • Akiskal HS (2005). Bipolar disorders section of Mood disorders: Historical introduction and conceptual overview. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1633–1640. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2007). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with bipolar disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46(1): 107–125. Available online: www.aacap.org/galleries/PracticeParameters/JAACAP_Bipolar_2007.pdf.
  • Ascherman LI, et al. (2006). Mental development and behavioral disorders. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 1213–1219. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
  • Birmaher B, et al. (2007). Bipolar disorder. In A Martin, FR Volkmar, eds., Lewis's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 513–528. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Compton MT, Nemeroff CB (2008). Depression and bipolar disorder. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 2. New York: WebMD.
  • Geddes J, Briess D (2008). Bipolar disorder, search date July 2006. Online version of Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  • Kaplan DW, Love-Osborne KA (2009). Adolescence. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Pediatric Diagnosis and Treatment, 19th ed., pp. 114–115. New York: Lange Medical Books/McGraw-Hill.
  • Mondimore FM (2007). Mood disorders. In NH Fiebach et al., eds., Principles of Ambulatory Medicine, 7th ed., pp. 329–349. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • National Institute of Mental Health (2008). Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens. Available online: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder-in-children-and-teens-brochure.pdf.
  • Post RM, Altshuler LL (2005). In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1661–1707. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Shaffer D (2005). Depressive disorders and suicide in children and adolescents. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3262–3274. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Credits

Author Jeannette Curtis
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer David A. Axelson, MD - Adolescent Psychiatry
Last Updated May 8, 2009

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