Diagnosing bipolar disorder or manic depression in anyone under 19 years of age is considered controversial in Europe, although it done frequently in the United States. In his award-winning documentary, “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive” (2006) even when he was a teenager, Fry thought his strange highs and lows were just because going through normal rebellious teenage behavior.
The golden standard of diagnosing bipolar disorder in American produced by the American Psychiatric Association entitled “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition” or DSM-IV. Teens usually need to go through at least two manic-depressive cycles before doctors would be comfortable as diagnosing them as having any of the numerous varieties of manic depression.
So, How Can You Tell?
In his aforementioned documentary, Stephen Fry asked the mother of a teenage son with bipolarity to finish this sentence, “You know your child is bipolar when …”
The mother answered, “You know your child is bipolar when he puts his foot through a plate glass window after raging for hours about something you can no longer remember.”
Fry also talked about his own symptoms of mania as a teen, which included walking about on rooftops, kleptomania and suddenly slapping a nurse for her making the casual suggestion that he do up his laces. All of these symptoms were radical departures from his normal behavior. They also not only put his life at risk, but also put others at risk. When a teen risks his or her own life and wounds others, this is definitely the time to go to a doctor.
Other symptoms of mania or its lesser form, hypomania, are dramatic and hard to ignore. The teen tends to talk far more rapidly than usual and hops from subject to subject, sometimes without even bothering to finish a previous sentence. The teen will begin grandiose plans such as starting a new religion or writing an epic poem but never can finish them before another, better idea comes along.
Another common symptom is lack of sleep because the teen will not feel sleepy. The teen will not feel ill. In fact, the teen may claim never to have better in his or her life. The teen may even decide to do something like run a marathon at midnight. But the lack of sleep eventually catches up after a few days, making the teen far more impatient and paranoid than usual.
In some forms of bipolar disorder, crashing lows come soon after the soaring highs of mania. The teen will not have any interest in anything, may stop grooming or washing, may refuse to eat or even get out of bed and become withdrawn. Any suggestion of going to a doctor may be met with a hostile reaction.
Please keep in mind that all teens will react differently to bipolar disorder, which may make diagnosis difficult. But bipolar disorder tends to get worse over time rather than better, so going to a doctor is a positive step, even if a diagnosis cannot be made quickly.
“Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive.” (2006)
“The Family Intervention Guide to Mental Illness: Recognizing Symptoms and Getting Treatment.” Bodie Morey & Kim T.Mueser, Ph.D. New Harbinger; 2007.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder-in-children-and-teens-easy-to-read/index.shtml
McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web. “The Bipolar Child: What to Look For.” http://www.mcmanweb.com/bipolar_child.html