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Our Uphill Battle: Guiding Our Bipolar Daughter Through Adolescence

One family's journey to find a diagnosis and effective treatment for their daughter.

By Mary Mussman

Our 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17, after six years of variable psychiatric symptoms. Many cases of bipolar illness feature onset during childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. With the myriad of normally-occurring changes during this age, it can be hard for a parent to identify and understand the early, often-subtle symptoms of psychiatric problems — especially bipolar disorder. At age 11, our daughter had obsessive thoughts and was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. At age 13, she had crying spells and was diagnosed with depression. At age 14, her school performance dropped and extensive testing resulted in an attention deficit disorder diagnosis (ADD).

On Sept. 11, 2001, our daughter was 15 years old, and taking an antidepressant and a stimulant for ADD. Following the terrorist attacks, she cried for about four days. Six weeks later she made a suicide attempt and started a two-year period that involved seven hospitalizations, five attempts at running away, a month-long addiction treatment and whole semesters of school missed. Toward the end of these chaotic years, she was diagnosed as bipolar type II. We’ve learned that part of the delay in a family being informed of a definitive diagnosis can be reluctance of a health care provider to deliver a diagnosis that represents a “life sentence” to a child until the illness evolves into something more chronic.

Throughout our daughter’s illness we have used psychiatrists who were child and adolescent board-certified, and psychologists and social workers who specialized in adolescents. Finding a psychiatrist with whom our daughter “clicked” took years, but now that she has grown out of that relationship, we’re looking for a new one. Our health insurance has been fabulous for inpatient charges and abysmal for outpatient coverage. There have been periods when our daughter was sick enough to be hospitalized, but we have avoided it through cobbling together an intensive daily outpatient visit with a collection of providers up to five times per week. This was wildly expensive, but luckily the need for this subsided and she settled down as the “overlay of adolescence” passed. Many providers painted a view of a better future as our daughter developed more insights into her illness and stopped experiencing the hormonal changes of puberty.

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