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For Teens Only: Could I Have Clinical Depression or Bipolar Disorder?

Every annoying adult will tell a teenager that adolescence can be a troubling time. Hormones drive moods and the struggle to find both identity and your place with friends can be a touch and go experience. Observing friends’ moods can help you gauge whether your own fall outside the typical range or not.

When your feelings seem more intense—either when you’re happy or when you’re sad— than those of your friends, it’s worth exploring the signs and contours of a mood disorder.

A chronically low mood or depression includes some or all of the following characteristics:

  • lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • persistent sadness

  • intense feelings of emptiness, worthlessness or guilt

  • restlessness

  • exhaustion, fatigue

  • sleep changes: insomnia or oversleeping

  • loss of focus or concentration

  • inability to make decisions

  • persistent thoughts of death or suicide

  • unexplained aches and pains

  • suicidal thoughts

If you or a loved one expresses thoughts of suicide, contact a medical professional, clergy member, family member or friend immediately or call 1-800-273-TALK. Suicidal thoughts result from biochemical imbalances that can be rectified.

The following feelings typify an abnormally high mood, otherwise known as the mania associated with bipolar disorder:

  • extremely good mood

  • a sense of invincibility and/or great confidence

  • tendency to start lots of ambitious projects

  • irritability, unprovoked rage

  • racing thoughts

  • talkativeness

  • a feeling of restlessness

  • paranoia

  • swinging high and low repeatedly 

The lives of teens struggling with mood disorders can be marred by poor decisions and/or ineffective, misguided attempts to cope. Mood disordered teens may experience or perpetrate:

  • academic failure

  • destruction of property

  • school suspension or expulsion

  • social isolation

  • drug and alcohol use

  • frequent misunderstandings

  • inability to finish projects

  • reckless behavior (speeding, unprotected sex, over-spending)

  • extreme defiance

  • poor social relations

  • jumping from topic to topic nonsensically

If you recognize some of these symptoms in yourself, know first that you are not alone. Mood disorders are incredibly prevalent in society today. One in ten adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 will experience some form of bipolar disorder or depression.

Some of the most talented celebrities ( Jim Carrey, Howie Mandell, Hugh Laurie), athletes (Terry Bradshaw, Ricky Williams, Earl Campbell), musicians (Kurt Cobain, Naomi Judd, Adam Ant) and politicians (Abraham Lincoln, Dan White, Merriwether Lewis ), have not only admitted to having mood disorders, they’ve discussed their situations openly on television. Having experienced the futility of hiding and ignoring their atypical moods, they exhort others to be honest with others and seek out the best treatments. To find more famous people who enjoy vibrant careers and relationships despite their mood disorders, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_with_depression. There are ten names listed under every letter of the alphabet! As ready as celebrities and others are to come out about their issues, within five years, there should be a show just about the challenges of having a mood disorder.

Do My Issues Add Up to Bipolar Disorder or Depression?

The first list covers symptoms of depression. If you’re having persistent, intense sadness for periods of two weeks or more, to the point where you’re staying home from school and other activities, you may be experiencing an imbalance of neurotransmitters (nor- epinephrine, serotonin and others) in your brain.

If you have periods of severe lows followed by periods where you’re experiencing some of the symptoms from the second list above, you may have bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder can be misdiagnosed as having only depression because, interpreting them as positive, these individuals do not report their “up” or manic periods. Manic symptoms can feel good, but they can also ruin relationships, school achievement and job prospects. Further, if you engage in some kind of reckless behavior while you feel invincible during a manic high, the repercussions cannot be erased.

If biochemical compounds are interfering with your enjoyment of life and threatening your future, chances are biochemical compounds, introduced in the form of medicines, can chase those blues away. Decades of strict research have confirmed that depression and bipolar result from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Often, this imbalance can be treated and rectified. It has nothing to do with character weakness or inability to cope.

Why Me? Where Depression Comes From

Our Bodies; Our Genes: The brain’s chemicals become imbalanced for a number of reasons. Some individuals are genetically predisposed to depressive or bipolar illness. Just as a diabetic’s body does not make enough insulin, the bodies and brains of some depressed people do not create an ideal balance of neurotransmitters. Mood disorders are just as biochemically based as asthma or multiple sclerosis. People suffering from these disorders do not feel ashamed for taking the medicine they need. Neither should you.

Scientists have also proven that mood disorders can run in families. The great American writer, Ernest Hemingway, fought suicidal thoughts all of his life, trying to manage his depression with alcohol. He eventually succeeded in killing himself at the age of 62.

This choice was nothing new for the Hemingway family. His father, Clarence Hemingway, his siblings Ursula and Leicester, and his granddaughter Margaux Hemingway, all took the same path to end their suffering. The biochemical predilection to depression and possibly manic depression ravaged the Hemingway family as much as breast cancer crops up in generation after generation of families today.

Researchers know now that suicidal thoughts emerge when neurotransmitters exist in sub-optimal levels. Once these levels are rebalanced, suicidal thoughts disappear, no matter how much the depressed person felt they were making a rational decision!

If you or a loved one expresses thoughts of suicide, contact a medical professional, clergy member, family member or friend immediately or call 1-800-273-TALK. Suicidal thoughts result from biochemical imbalances that can be rectified.

Life Events and Circumstances: A death, natural disaster or other traumatic event can send anyone—adult, teen, child—into such a spiral of despair, the brain cannot work its way out again (see our blog: “Quarterback Terry Bradshaw: Anxious and Depressed?”). Studies show that 40% of those experiencing post-traumatic stress also exhibit signs of chronic depression (see our article: “Traumatic Events and Mood Disorders.”) A traumatic event can be purely individual. One soldier can come home from Iraq and jump back into the work force. More, however, are haunted by images of death and destruction. With medication and therapy, they recover. Is one a better person than the other?

The boost your brain receives from medication and/or therapy and/or lifestyle changes can get it back on track, functioning at optimal levels. In the majority of cases, individuals take anti-depressant medications for less than one year.

  • Other Disease: In other cases, serious illness such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer sends some into depression. First the medications required can cause hormonal changes that effect mood. If the disease prevents you from eating and exercising optimally, negative moods can descend as well. Most of all, however, the onset of serious illness can cause a level of stress, fear and sadness that affects even the most upbeat. Anti-depressant medication can help you face the challenges that lay ahead. Check with your doctor to make its safe to take the mood medications with your other medications.