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Understanding Bipolar Disorder in Adolescents

Adolescence and early adulthood is the most common time for bipolar disorder to emerge, but it can appear earlier. Nearly 2.5 percent of all youth meet the criteria for this disorder at some point, leaving many with questions. This guide can help you learn a bit more.

Manic Symptoms Aren’t a Predictor

Many worry that children who show elevated symptoms of mania will progress to bipolar, but a study of 707 children between the ages of six and twelve demonstrated that those who had the symptoms did not always meet the criteria for bipolar, but often did meet the criteria for other disorders, including depression, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and ADHD. Eighty-five percent of those kids showed a reduction in mania symptoms over the course of 24 months, while the other 15 percent saw an increase, followed by a sharp decrease, then a return to baseline. In all children, it did not progress to bipolar.

Suicidal Thoughts Are Common

Unfortunately, among those diagnosed with bipolar, suicidal thoughts seem fairly common. One study of 1,595 youths who had been diagnosed with bipolar suggested they dealt with suicidal thoughts 50.4 percent of the time, and made attempts on their lives 25.5 percent of the time. Those numbers are even higher in adults, but they are associated with age, gender, the onset of the illness, past self-injurious behaviors, more comorbid disorders, those with more severe cases, family history of suicidality, physical/sexual abuse, parental depression, and poor family functioning.

The Severity of the Disorder

Wondering just how severe it is in youth? One study looked at 54 kids with the disorder, and it found that overall, bipolar in youth was far more severe and needed far stronger treatment.

New Medication May Help

Fortunately, because this disorder is so severe in youth, new medications are being developed to help. Paliperidone has been evaluated in those ages 6 to 15, and despite the small sample number, participants were rated as much improved after an eight-week study. There are some adverse effects, though, so more study is needed.

There are also new long term studies on mood stabilizers for youth in this group, and it shows promising results, too. In a sample of 68 participants, 50 percent showed a reduction in symptoms.

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