Has the age of bipolar onset fallen or are we simply more sensitized to something that has always been there? It's an interesting question. Certainly the average age of diagnosing bipolar has dropped fairly dramatically over the past few years from an average age of 30 years to just 19. Some argue that additional stress and lifestyle is to blame. A family history of bipolar disorder coupled with stress at school, recreational drug and alcohol intake, increases the risk of onset dramatically. Others disagree. They say it has always been there but just not recognized for what it is. They point to the fact that bipolar is often misdiagnosed and it can take 10 years or more before the symptoms are recognized.
The National Institute of Mental Health highlight differences between bipolar symptoms in teens and those of adults. They point out that when manic, young people are more likely to exhibit destructive behavior than to have any sense of elation. When depressed, they complain more about physical problems like headaches, stomach pains, fatigue and a general sense of feeling unwell. Frequent absences from school, unexplained crying, problems with social contacts, communication, and extreme sensitivity to any form of rejection or failure, are all symptomatic.
Research from the NIMH indicates that when the illness begins before or soon after puberty, "it is often characterized by a continuous, rapid-cycling, irritable, and mixed symptom state that may co-occur with disruptive behavior disorders." In later adolescence onset is usually sudden and begins with a manic episode and is characterized by, "a more episodic pattern with relatively stable periods between episodes."
Research into bipolar in young adults is developing but it is recognized that current practices in treatment are not as sophisticated as they might be. The main guidance for doctors still comes from the treatment of adults which may not always be appropriate for adolescents and young adults.
Dr. Mani M Pavuluri is Associate Professor in Child Psychiatry and Director of the Pediatric Mood Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of the issues in treating young adults, she says, is the side effects they experience. They are sensitive to the fact that others will notice their decreased energy levels, tremors and weight gain. This means they may resist treatment. Most young people won't disclose their diagnosis for fear of stigma. Some young people turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to mask their condition as these are seen as more socially acceptable than having a mental illness.
How does bipolar disorder affect children and teens differently than adults? Retrieved July 6, 2009, from National Institute of Mental Health Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder-in-children-and-teens-a-parents-guide/how-does-bipolar-disorder-affect-children-and-teens-differently-than-adults.shtml