Bipolar Disorder is an illness where people experience extreme changes in mood that affect the way they think and behave.

It is normal for our mood to swing up and down and to have times when we feel very happy or ‘hyper’, or very sad and low, especially when difficult things are happening in our lives. Mood fluctuations are common in young people due to the hormonal changes of puberty and changes happening in the brain at this age. This only becomes an illness when the changes in mood are extreme, may occur without any obvious cause, last a long time and start to cause problems in our lives – at school, work or in our relationships for example.

Bipolar disorder is very rare in younger children, but symptoms may start to occur in mid to late teens – around 15 – 19 years. Most people who go on to develop bipolar disorder will experience their first symptoms by the time they are 25 years old, but it may take several years to diagnose.

Bipolar is a treatable illness and with the right medications, therapy and support people affected by the illness can go to lead happy and successful lives, in fact several celebrities and high achievers have spoken publicly about their experience of bipolar disorder – most notably Stephen Fry, Demi Lovato and Carrie Fisher.

What Causes Bipolar?

The causes of bipolar are not fully understood yet although there may be a genetic link as it tends to run in families. Other factors that may increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder include experiencing severe emotional distress or trauma in childhood or having to cope with a lot of difficult life events.

People with bipolar disorder will experience times or ‘episodes’ of both low mood – depressive episodes, and very high mood – manic/hypomanic episodes. Some people experience both at the same time and these are called mixed episodes.

Everyone will experience the illness differently – in some people mood changes happen very rapidly, for others periods of feeling low or high may last for weeks or even months. Often people have ‘normal’ periods between the episodes that may last for weeks, months or even years. Some people only ever experience a few episodes and then never have symptoms again, others may struggle with episodes throughout their lives.

People must have experienced both depressive and manic/hypomanic episodes to receive a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Symptoms of a depressive episode may include:

  • Feeling sad or low in mood most of the time
  • Losing interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Feeling unmotivated and having no energy, not looking after yourself
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, irritable or tearful
  • Having lots of negative thought
  • Changes in sleep or appetite – sleeping or eating a lot more or less than usual, disturbed sleep
  • Struggling to concentrate or focus on anything, memory problems
  • Having thoughts of suicide and/or self -harm

Symptoms of a manic/hypomanic episode may include:

  • feeling incredibly happy or ‘high’ in mood and energy
  • feeling irritable or agitated
  • talking too much, jumping around from topic to topic
  • having racing thoughts and ideas
  • increased activity and restlessness, insomnia or not needing to sleep
  • not eating much, loss of appetite
  • finding it hard to concentrate and constantly changing plans
  • saying things to people that you wouldn’t normally say
  • feeling over confident, believing you have abilities and powers that you may not have
  • not looking after yourself
  • taking risks or reckless behaviour – sexual risks, spending money, driving too fast, using drugs and alcohol for example
  • symptoms of psychosis – losing touch with reality and seeing, hearing or believing things that others don’t, feeling paranoid and suspicious.
  • in a hypomanic episode people will extreme less extreme forms of the symptoms above

Sometimes people experiencing these symptoms may not believe that they are unwell or need treatment, they may even find the symptoms enjoyable and feel that they are useful and productive. Family and friends might need to intervene to get people to access help to ensure that they don’t come to harm. A manic or hypomanic episode is often followed by a depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder should be diagnosed by mental health professional, this could be a psychiatrist, psychologist or nurse for example.

If you are worried that you (or a friend or family member) may have symptoms of bipolar you should talk to your GP/family doctor, school nurse or counsellor who will be able to refer you to specialist mental health services if they think you need an assessment or treatment.

Treatment for bipolar may include various types of medication to help manage mood changes  – anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and/or mood stabilisers. You can find out more about medications for bipolar on the Headmeds site.

You may also be offered talking therapies such as CBT or family therapy which will help you and your family to understand the illness and the links between your feelings and thoughts and how this affects your behaviour.

Sometimes if people experience severe depressive or manic episodes they may need to spend short periods in a psychiatric hospital to help stabilise their mood.

How can I help myself?

There are lots of things you can do yourself to help manage and reduce symptoms of bipolar. These include:

  • Learning about and understanding your illness and the things that might trigger an episode for you
  • Making lifestyle changes – reducing stress, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, making time for hobbies and seeing friends and family
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Maintaining a regular routine and remembering to take your medication, even when you feel symptoms are under control.
  • Learning your early warning signs and seeking help from your mental health professional as soon as you notice these – this can avoid episodes developing or reduce their length and severity.
  • Build a network of supportive friends and family you can talk to and who know how to help when symptoms develop
  • Write a crisis plan when you are well – setting out how you want to be treated and what works for you when you are unwell – this can help you to feel in control and help your family/friends and medical professionals to support you when you become unwell.
  • Access peer support – making some connections with other young people who have had similar experiences can be really helpful so you feel less alone and can share tips and ideas for looking after yourself or managing symptoms. There may be local support groups in your area (link to services in cornwall) or online groups and forums – try looking at Elefriends, The Mix  or Kooth 

Myth buster #1

Myth: People with bipolar disorder will never lead a normal life

Fact: Bipolar can be a difficult illness to live with. However, even if they are unwell some of the time, people with bipolar are able to lead full and meaningful lives. Many people with bipolar find ways to control or reduce their symptoms through medication, therapy and self-care techniques such as ensuring they get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat healthily, use mindfulness or relaxation techniques and maintain good social support networks.

Myth buster #2

Myth: a manic episode is enjoyable and productive

Sometimes when people are experiencing a manic episode they have a lot of energy and feel good. However, they might also go without sleep for long periods and can start to feel out of control, paranoid, restless and irritable. They might start to behave very erratically and take risks such as spending money they don’t have or taking drugs, which can have a negative impact on their relationships, work and financial situation. When people experience a manic episode they may not realise they are unwell and friends, family and professionals may need to intervene to get treatment for them.

Myth buster #3

People tend to talk about stress as if it is totally negative, actually some stress can be good for us! A little bit of stress can help us to stay motivated and productive, it gives us energy and can help us to concentrate and focus, it drives us to meet deadlines or perform well in exams, sports or public speaking for example. This type of good stress is called ‘eustress’ – it can feel exciting and even enjoyable. Without any stress we could feel very lethargic, lazy and even bored.

Useful resources

Time to Change

Hear from people who have experienced bipolar disorder directly

RCPSYCH

Watch this short video to learn more about bipolar from the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Bipolar UK

Find out more about bipolar and young people from Bipolar UK

Need help now?

If you need to speak to someone urgently call your GP or family doctor!

or

Childline up to 19yrs : 0800 1111
The Samaritans: 116 123
In an emergency go to A&E or call 999

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