Advice on... Bipolar disorder

Hannah Smith
Friday, February 19, 2010

Bipolar disorder can have a profound effect on the sufferer's life, influencing their mood, how they relate to others and the extent to which they take risks. Hannah Smith looks at how it affects young people's lives, and what treatments are available.

Q: What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar used to be known as manic depression and is a mental health condition where you have phases of feeling very up, high or manic, and phases where you feel very down or depressed. These mood swings are much more extreme than the mood changes that most people feel from time to time. They last from days to weeks at a time.

You can feel elated or high when you are in manic phase and in utter despair during the depressive phase. Occasionally people can also experience mixed state moods, where symptoms of mania and depression are present at the same time. In between phases they may feel okay.

Q: How many young people have bipolar in the UK?

Bipolar disorder affects about one in every 100 people and can start when someone is a teenager or young adult. It often runs in families, although this isn't necessarily the case.

Q: How might a young person with bipolar disorder behave?

During a manic phase, a young person may become over-familiar and outspoken, dress inappropriately, talk incessantly and faster and louder than normal, and find it difficult to concentrate and finish tasks. They might also not feel the need for sleep, have an increase in appetite and do dangerous or reckless things, such as drinking too much or taking recreational drugs.

During a depressive phase, a young person may lose interest in activities such as eating or going out with friends. They might also feel down all the time, feel tired all the time and have difficulty sleeping or staying awake. They might also have feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts.

Q: What treatments are available?

Bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that needs long-term care. With the right treatment and careful monitoring, people with bipolar can live a full life. Over time a young person will be able to identify the start of an up or a down phase, and therefore get treatment quickly when they need it. Regular annual reviews with doctors are essential as a young person's needs continue to change.

Bipolar disorder is mainly treated using medicines such as lithium to stabilise moods, which help you think, feel or behave differently.

If given such a drug, the young person will be closely monitored by doctors as there are many side effects, such as feeling tired and weight gain, and it can be difficult at first to work out the right dosage.

Other therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and systemic family therapy may also be offered and can be very helpful.

Q: How do you treat a depressive episode?

Managing depressive symptoms in bipolar is similar to depression. However, taking antidepressants can destabilise the young person's moods. If an antidepressant is prescribed, another drug to stabilise their mood should also be given.

Young people with bipolar disorder experiencing mild symptoms of depression should be monitored weekly and offered support at home and in school.

Young people who are having treatment and who have moderate to severe depressive symptoms should consider taking an antidepressant.

Q: How do you treat a manic episode?

If a young person is taking an antidepressant when experiencing a manic episode, this should be stopped, and he or she should be given mood stabilising medication such as lithium.

There are also a number of things a person with bipolar can do to help themselves. These include avoiding staying up late, having a structured routine and monitoring their own physical and mental health.

Hannah Smith is senior media and campaigns officer for YoungMinds



  • YoungMinds runs a free confidential parents' helpline on 0808 802 5544, Monday to Friday, 9.30am-4.30pm
  • MDF is the national bipolar disorder organisation
  • Rethink provides support to individuals with mental health problems

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