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Bipolar Disorder 101- Information for the Family

Updated on October 25, 2013

National Alliance On Mental Illness


Affects of Undiagnosed Mental Illness.

According to NAMI, 64% percent of jail inmates have symptoms of serious mental illness.
According to NAMI, 64% percent of jail inmates have symptoms of serious mental illness. | Source

Early Detection Can Save Your Child's Life

Bipolar Disorder, formerly know as Manic Depression, is a mood disorder believed to be caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain), that is diagnosed in approximately 2.5% of Americans. Although the exact cause is unknown, a genetic link has been found in about 75% of those diagnosed.
However, even though there may not be any documented cases of Bipolar Disorder in your family, don’t think your kids are safe. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health report that there appears to be almost twice as many cases of this disorder than previously thought. Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder are often mistaken as ADHD, Depression, Schizophrenia, and rebellion, among other things.
Although the first signs of Bipolar Disorder usually appear in adolescence, they have been documented as early as infancy. Untreated, this disorder can lead to illness, unplanned pregnancy, hospitalization, incarceration, alcoholism, drug addiction, and even death.
Research shows that 25-50% of people with Bipolar Disorder attempt suicide. 20% succeed. As many as 60% of people with this disorder have alcohol and/or drug abuse issues, which increase the risk of suicide by 50%.
The good news is, although not preventable, Bipolar Disorder is treatable. To prevent the often devastating affects of this condition, early detection is the key.
Bipolar Disorder is characterized by extreme changes in mood, from depression to episodes of mania, or hypomania (a lesser degree of mania) with a quiet or “mixed” stage in between. Although there are several types of Bipolar Disorder, they only vary in mood intensities.
Mania my cause feelings of euphoria. These people are often sociable and pleasant to be around. They may feel invincible and have an inflated sense of self and grandiose ideas of their abilities, often leading to reckless behavior. They may appear to be on “high” on stimulants.
But more commonly, especially in children, mania produces extreme irritability. The Bipolar person may speak loudly or quickly and jump quickly from one thought to the next. Other signs of mania include increased energy, decreased need for sleep, inability to concentrate, erratic and impulsive behavior, aggression, flighty ideas and poor judgement.
Depression symptoms include prolonged feelings of irritability, sadness, worthlessness, or guilt, lack of motivation, loss of interest, fatigue, sleep problems, changes in appetite, memory problems, and thoughts of death or suicide.
Between these mood extremes, Bipolar victims usually experience a quiet period or, more commonly, a “mixed” cycle defined as milder symptoms from both mood extremes.
Children with this disorder may have some of the classic symptoms, as well as intense temper tantrums, uncontrollable rage, destructive behavior, unexplained crying or screaming, head banging, food cravings, bed wetting, abnormally intense separation anxiety and night terrors. They will have problems keeping friends, behaving in school and may exhibit sexual behavior inappropriate for there age.
If you suspect that your child may suffer from Bipolar Disorder, schedule an appointment with his or her doctor immediately to rule out any possible physiological causes for symptoms. You will then referred to a specialist. If a mental health condition is found, a treatment team comprising of specialists will devise a Treatment Plan for your child, which may or may not include medications, psychotherapy, group counseling, substance abuse treatment, special education, and referrals for other support and services for you and your child.
Bipolar Disorder can be a devastating illness, but with proper treatment, most sufferers can lead normal, productive lives. All parents should be aware of the symptoms since early detection is the key to saving lives.

News From NAMI

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 20% of children with mental illness are diagnosed and treated.

Bipolar Crisis Prevention for Parents

A crisis occurs when a Bipolar person becomes overwhelmed and unable to cope, often resulting in a Baker Act (emergency hospitalization in a mental health facility). A crisis is scary and disrupts the lives of the entire household, however, most crisis' are avoidable.

Ensure that your child is taking his/her medication as directed and keep all doctor appointments. Medication is the only thing that will control the chemical imbalance that causes Bipolar Disorder. It may take a while to find the best combination of medications for your child, so monitor your child's moods and behaviors to the best of your ability and report all changes to your child's doctor.

Get your child into individual counseling. Mental illness is painful and often results in behavior that causes feelings of guilt, fear and inadequacy. Your child may feel "defective" and suffer from low self esteem and feelings of unworthiness. Counseling will help your child discover his/her strengths and weaknesses and modify behavior accordingly.

Your child will also benefit greatly from group therapy. Teens in group therapy feel supported and less alone. They learn to recognize and understand the symptoms of their disorder and develop coping skills to deal with them. Teens are prone to peer pressure and are more inclined to listen to suggestions and feedback from other teens they can relate to. After a time in group therapy, your teen will be able to provide his/her own suggestions and support to newcomers, something that will help repair his/her battered self esteem.

It may be more difficult to find group support for younger children, because the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder usually don't appear until late childhood. Don't give up! It isn't as important for younger children as it is for teens. Your youngster will benefit from other forms of expression and stress management, such as art, dance, sports and other forms of creativity and exercise.

It may seem like a lot right now, but don't lose heart! Individual and group therapy are only temporary, Bipolar Disorder can be managed and crisis can be avoided.

Untreated Bipolar teens make poor decisions and challenge fate.


The risk of one Bipolar parent having a Bipolar child is 15-30%. If both parents are Bipolar, the risk increases to 50-75%.

Emergency 911- Involuntary Commitment

There are times when somebody with a mental illness may reach a mental health crisis that requires that he or she be committed involuntarily into a mental health facility or hospital for medication management or adjustment. The patient stays for a few days, sees a psychiatrist, and gets stabilized on medication before being released. They are well treated, well fed, and take group therapy. Substance abuse issues may be addressed.

A person must be committed INVOLUNTARILY by law enforcement personnel and done only if his/her mental health issues pose a danger to him/her or somebody else. This includes suicidal, homicidal, or violent behavior, delusions, hallucinations or paranoia. Some poorly trained law enforcement officers may be confused if the person is not suicidal or homicidal but can easily contact his superiors about what constitutes "a danger to self".

An Involuntary commitment is very disruptive to everybody in the house, but especially so to the patient. To avoid this type of crisis situation, ensure that medication is taken as directed, all appointments are kept, the treatment plan is being worked, a crisis intervention plan is available, and all people involved learn to identify symptoms and triggers of an upcoming crisis.

Are You Bipolar?

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Seeking Help

As a survivor of bipolar disorder and the mother of a bipolar daughter and schizophrenic son, I have found that the local 'mental health center' is the best place to go. Don't confuse this with a 'counseling center'. A complete mental health center (every city has one), has everybody and everything you need all in one place, from Psychiatrists,counselors,therapists, and dieticians. They offer medication management,12 Step meetings, individual therapy, group therapy, residential treatment and crisis treatment. Many even offer pharmacy services. All your family's records are in the same place. They accept most insurance or see you on a sliding fee. You receive rights and responsibilities information and a treatment plan that covers all your questions and needs.

The alternative is to see a psychiatrist for your medicine, then find a counselor for your emotions and a support group for support, and do the same for your children. Your family's medical records get spread out and quality of treatment suffers.

The Cause of Bipolar Disorder

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder are thought to be brought on by an imbalance of some key chemicals in the brain.

The brain consists of billions of nerve cells that move information from one cell to another. To keep the information flowing, these cells produce chemicals known as "neurotransmitters" that affect brain activity. Many scientists believe that the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder are caused by an abnormal level of neurotransmitters.

Getting Diagnosed

People with Bipolar Disorder spend about 10 years seeking treatment before finally getting diagnosed. One survey found that almost 70% of people with this disorder are initially diagnosed with a different condition.This is mainly because patients complain about depressive symptoms but not manic symptoms. There are no lab tests for diagnosing this condition. Before each appointment, make a detailed list of ALL symptoms, whether you think they apply or not. Be honest and thorough with your Psychiatrist. Answer all questions honestly. If your child has Bipolar Disorder, discuss with him/her the importance of being completely honest with the doctor, no matter how embarrassing.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

     Bipolar 1-This type is characterized by manic, mixed, and depressive episodes. This is the  most severe type of bipolar disorder.

     Bipolar 2-This type is characterized by hypomanic (mild manic), mixed, and depressive episodes. Classic mania is not experienced with this type of bipolar disorder.

     Cyclothmic disorder-This type is characterized by chronic, fluctuating hypomanic and depressive episodes that are irregular, shorter and less severe than other types of bipolar disorder.

     Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified-This type is not characterized in any of the above types.

Important Warning

Most Bipolar people are prescribed antidepressants along with something to control manic and hypomanic episodes. Antidepressants may increase suicidal thoughts in some children, teens and young adults,especially during the initial few months of treatment or when the dose is changed. Pay close attention to any changes, especially sudden changes in mood, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings, and call the doctor right away if they are new, worse, or worrying you.

In most cases, though, antidepressants are beneficial to Bipolar patients.

Natural Stress Relief

Finding Space

All people, but especially those suffering mental health issues, need their one "place" for a little down time to unwind.

Warning Signs of a New Episode

Early signs of a mood (or as I call it, Bipolar) episode varies from person to person and whether he/she is going into a manic or a depressive episode. On the onset of an episode, a bipolar person may experience slight, but notable changes in mood, sleep, energy, self esteem, sexual interest, concentration and level of enthusiasm and optimism. He/she may dress differently or neglect grooming. Regular observation of a Bipolar person will help others recognize when help is needed.

If you notice yourself or your Bipolar loved one showing signs of a new mood episode developing, contact the attending doctor immediately to schedule an appointment, before you, or your loved one, goes into crisis.

Battling the Blues When Meds Aren't Enough

When dealing with chronic depression and depressive symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, medication and therapy are not always enough 100% of the time. The sufferer must actively participate in his/her recovery. Different techniques work for different people but there are quite a few things that I can do to lift my mood when I am suffering.

I pay special attention to my diet. I eat extra fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein ( especially from nuts and fatty fish, which contain Omega 3). I show respect to myself by caring for myself.

I force myself to exercise, especially outside. Exercise relieves stress and increases serotonin levels in the brain, improving my mood and helping me feel better about myself. I try to kill two birds with one stone, like walking to the store, playing with the kids or exercising the dog, to help me feel even better about myself.

I also find that sunlight, and any other bright light, lifts my mood and makes me feel like I have a bit more energy. There are actually studies done that prove that light promotes production of mood enhancing chemicals (melatonin and serotonin) in the brain.

I also must force myself to socialize, no matter how badly I want to be alone. Afterwords, I am always grateful that I did.

I also force myself to take extra care in my appearance. When I look good, I feel better about myself.

I have found that one of the most valuable things I can do for my emotional well being is to keep a journal (or diary). Writing forces me to confront my feelings and fears so that I can move on.

Creating a routine is comforting for all people and can be especially helpful for those who are stressed or depressed. Morning meditation, the daily lunchtime walk around the block, or a cup of hot cocoa with your favorite TV program are good examples of regular routines that can comfort.

Spirituality and religion are vital for some depression sufferers. I believe that God allows me to suffer from my condition because it leads me to Him, to strengthen me and allow me to help other sufferers.

Support Each Other

Getting Support

All people who suffer from bipolar disorder need a strong support system. The local mental health center can provide you with a list of support groups. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), can help you connect with appropriate county, state, and federal agencies, provide a list of local support groups, and provide education for you and your loved ones. If you are the parent of a Bipolar child, you need support, too.

It's important for a person with bipolar disorder and others who are affected by his/her behavior to have a trusted person to bond with and talk to, perhaps as you would a sponsor in a 12 step program or your BFF in high school. Compassionate siblings are great for support. Chat rooms for bipolar sufferers and survivors are numerous. For those with a dual diagnosis, 12 step recovery groups are helpful.

Most people who have bipolar disorder also usually have other personal issues that may be addressed at other support groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous, grief recovery  Parents without Partners, or ALANON. You would be amazed at how many people you meet every day suffer a mental illness or have a child with a mental illness.  Always remember that you are not alone.

Medication Reminders

Being a sufferer (someday a survivor) of Bipolar Disorder, I used to find it difficult remembering to take my medicine as directed. My condition severely affects my memory and my pride didn't help. Who wants to admit a defect and take medicine every day for the rest of their lives?

I realized the importance of my medication after my third misdemeanor arrest over something stupid. I was court ordered to seek medical care for my condition and after several months, and a clearer mind, I realized that my life CAN be better.

Yet, I still could not always remember to take my medicine, or whether or not I took my scheduled dose.

I have found a few things to be helpful. I leave my bottles on my dresser, in clear view. When I take my morning dose, I turn them upside down. When I take my evening dose, I turn them back right side up. I also set my cell phone's alarm to remind me when it's time.

For those who need more reminders or "medication organization", there is a new program at This program offers written medication schedules, including pictures of your pills, special instructions and dietary considerations, and refill reminders. You can even receive a text message reminding you to take your meds. The medicine charts come in English or Spanish and in various size print. This resource is absolutely free and can be utilized by us all.

In Conclusion

Bipolar Disorder is a devastating illness when not properly treated, but with proper care and support, sufferers can lead happy, productive lives.


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    • profile image

      Mary Lincoln 

      7 years ago

      Colleen, I never knew you had such an ability to write. You really SHOULD make a career of this! Great article.


    • Ingenira profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent write up, cobrien. I would love to read more about your experience as a mom with bipolar, and how you cope with an autistic child, and your work with children. You are so knowledgeable, I will be so grateful if you can write and share them with the world, helping those who need it, helping the rest to understand it. That will certainly help to make this world a little better place to be. God bless.


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