What is it?
Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health condition that causes people to experience extreme, changes in mood and behaviour, from mania to depression. It is called “bipolar” because of the two “poles” of mood, where the mood shifts are extreme, often unprovoked.
A child who has bipolar disorder experiences both manic phases (periods of abnormally high energy and activity) and depressive phases (periods of intense sadness, tiredness, or irritability) that last days or even weeks. These periods are known as mood episodes. Sometimes, a child will experience manic and depressive symptoms at the same time. This is called a mixed mood episode.
What can be done?
There is no complete cure for bipolar disorder but with early diagnosis and multidimensional treatment, it can generally be controlled, allowing children to return to more normal functioning.
Psychotherapy refers to a wide range of techniques and methods used to help children who are experiencing difficulties with their emotions or behaviour. Different types of therapies can help children and their families manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Family-focused therapy and skill-building and cognitive behavioural approaches, as well as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), are evidence-based approaches and supports that can be effective in managing bipolar disorder.
There are medications that are effective at managing bipolar disorder. Doctors typically prescribe one or more of the following classes of medications to treat bipolar disorder in children and teens:
- mood stabilizers
- anticonvulsant medications
- atypical antipsychotics
Most children with bipolar disorder need to take medications for a long time, starting with low doses and then increasing gradually as needed. Because the symptoms of bipolar disorder are quite complex, it is not unusual to need more than one medication to manage them. School support is essential in treating children with mental health challenges. It is important for the school to have information about the child’s medications.
What makes some children more vulnerable to bipolar disorder?
Genetic factors: family history of mental health challenges and brain-based disorders
Environmental factors such as adverse childhood experiences or toxic stress during childhood
Brain chemistry/development factors: Both genetic and environmental risk factors can alter brain chemistry and development. Scientists believe that the brains of children with bipolar disorder grow and develop differently than those of other children.
Where can I access support?
Talk to the child’s family doctor or pediatrician to help identify if the child’s behaviour is normal for their developmental stage.
Talk to the child’s guardianship worker to explore what options are available for assessment so their diagnosis and treatment plan can be included in their Care Plan. The guardianship worker will help make appropriate referrals for specialized supports and services that may include working with a counsellor that would be a good fit for the child.
Get an assessment through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team. Your local CYMH office offers a range of free and voluntary mental health services and supports for children from 0-18 years of age and their families. These services include assessments, therapy and treatment, education and referrals to specialized programs and resources. There are 100 intake clinics for children, youth and their families at convenient locations throughout BC.
You can also contact a private psychologist or counsellor through the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors or the BC Psychological Association. You can use website filters to search for a counsellor in your community that specializes in certain mental health challenges.
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