Our teenage years are some of the more difficult ones of our lives. Certainly from the vantage point of a teenager they are internally the hardest years yet. Add on a mental illness and you’ve got the perfect storm. This article will focus on bipolar disorder, but there are many other mental illnesses that complicate teenage years. With most of these disorders manifesting themselves during the teenage years or twenties, it can be very difficult to separate “normal” teenage feelings from psychiatric illnesses With bipolar disorder, also known as bipolar depression and formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, the diagnostic criteria could be considered to be met by a majority of teenagers, most of whom will not carry on these symptoms into adulthood, as bipolar disorders affects approximately 2.6 percent of adults in the US (source). The difficulty lies in the fact that there is almost no way to parse these two causes.
As seen in my comics, there are striking similarities between the symptoms of bipolar disorder and symptoms of a teenage mood swing. Teenage angst and depression can be some of the hardest things to differentiate. The feelings caused by both can be extremely similar. Feelings of worthlessness, self injury, lethargy, and self hatred can all be symptoms of both states. Conversely, the many of the symptoms of teenage intensity and excitement are identical to many symptoms of a manic episode: racing thoughts, sleep loss, an inflated sense of self worth, impulsive and rash decisions resulting from poor judgement are all overlapping behaviors or feelings that result from either of these things.
However, there are differences between the two. The severity of the mood swings can sometimes be an indicator of the level of help someone needs, however it can’t always be counted on to distinguish as discussed in the previous paragraph. There are some symptoms of bipolar disorder, such as the correlation between changes in sleeping and eating habits with manic and depressive episodes, which are less likely to occur with teenage mood swings. While increased sleeping and angst during teenage years can come together, and loss of sleep can occur as well in accompaniment with teenage excitement, the severity of these symptoms can actually be an indicator as to whether bipolar is present. The more severe the lethargy or sleeplessness, the more similar the symptoms are to a mood disorder. Some of the biggest differences between teenage mood swings and possible bipolar disorder are the effects your temperament have on your actions and furthermore on your life. Of course, teenage shenanigans can often lead to trouble and sometimes even change the course of your life. However, these “shenanigans” are often learned from and not repeated cyclically, whereas a person with bipolar disorder may repeat similar dangerous behaviors again and again. Another difference is the effect your mood swings have on your family and friends. Again, while teenage mood swings can affect those surrounding you immediately (i.e. family, close friends, etc.) a bipolar person’s mood swings can often affect a much wider circle of people.
As we’ve seen so far, there are far more questions than answers when it comes to diagnosing bipolar in teens. These questions are telling, however, and there are some absolute facts we can learn. The first is the importance of talking to a professional about any troubles you may be having, whether you think they are the result of a mood disorder or just a part of teenage life. The second thing is that suffering is suffering and therefore one of these things is not any more or less serious than the other. The difference is in the treatment, and you can only get good treatment from a professional.