For Teens Only: Helping a Friend with Extreme Moods

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“My friend recently wanted to show me some fantastic ideas she had. When she gave me the piece of paper, the words were written horizontally, but then another layer of words was written vertically on top of that. There were lines, circles and arrows going all over the page. At first I just thought it was her brilliance, but now seeing some of the other things she’s been doing, I think something’s seriously wrong.”

The teen in the example above describes a friend who is showing some signs of mania, one symptom of bipolar disorder. When a mania ends, the individual can return to a stable state or go into a severe depression.

If you’ve experienced something similar with a friend, you may be feeling confused. Often, your friend returns to “normal,” acting as if nothing ever happened. Worse, the adults around your friend take pains to pretend nothing out of the ordinary occurred. As a teen, you most likely don’t have a lot of experience with those suffering from mood disorders. Of course you’re uncertain of what to do. You try to dismiss it, but concerns linger . . .

This article explains how you can tell the difference between a typical “dramatic” or “down” teen mood and a serious mood disorder that requires medical attention. It also provides action steps that reasonable and concerned steps a concerned teen can take to help a friend.

Moodiness v. Mood Disorders: A Serious Distinction

Just as certain organs or systems can malfunction in the body, sometimes the mechanics of the brain break down and fail to perform optimally. Most often what causes this is an imbalance in the neurotransmitters, substances that help messages pass from neuron to neuron in the brain. If inadequate levels of neurotransmitters exist or if the different types of neurotransmitters are imbalanced, a person’s moods and perceptions of reality can be affected. Bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression) and clinical depression are two mood disorders that result from chemical imbalances.

The following feelings and habits 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

  • extreme thoughts (e.g. I understand God better than most . . . )

  • talkativeness

  • a feeling of restlessness

  • paranoia

  • swinging high and low repeatedly

More Than a Teen Mood: Clinical Depression

“My cousin has only moped around lately, refusing to come out with us. Yesterday she said that she had nothing to live for and that the world would be better off without her. She’s scaring me!”

Statements like those above typically come from those experiencing serious though treatable depression. While the teen years have their ups and downs, this extreme thinking needs to set off alarm bells for people around the depressed individual. Sometimes, parents and other loved ones think the teen is “just in a mood.” But if this “mood” persists for more than two weeks and involves some of the characteristics described below, action should be taken. When so many effective medications and other treatments exist, there is no reason for a depressed person to suffer for one week more.

  • A chronically low mood or depression includes some or all of the following characteristics:
  • lack of interest in activities 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

When an individual exhibits both extremes of mood, he or she usually gets evaluated for bipolar disorder. If that person only exhibits the symptoms listed above, the doctor typically suspects depression (a uni-polar or mood disorder concentrated on the one end of the mood spectrum). American doctors now prescribed more anti-depressants than any other class of drugs. While a full ten percent of all Americans benefit from anti- depressant medication, most of them keep this fact quiet.

What If I’m Afraid to Bring Up Mood Disorders with My Friend and Her Family!

Your concern over family response is understandable. An individual and/or the family can feel insulted, confused and angry when you bring up your observations. A negative response stems from the fact that so many have put mood disorders in the category of “character flaws” or “personal weakness” for so long. But once you realize you can fight this ignorance with facts, you will have quite an arsenal.

In the past 50 years, medicine has advanced at a phenomenal pace. In the past 25 years, psychiatric research and the medicines that have resulted from it have advanced even more. Studies and studies of studies have proven unequivocally that depression and bipolar disorder stem from biochemical anomalies that can be treated in all sorts of ways:

  • with other chemicals like medications and even nutritional supplements

  • with talk therapies

  • with lifestyle changes

In fact, depression is so based in physical and biochemical aspects that a few companies have developed urine tests to detect the neurotransmitter levels underlying it. Wouldn’t parents want to know if their child had asthma when an inhaler can turn that kid into a soccer star?Despite these facts, there’s no point in painting a pretty picture that your friend and his or her family will greet your concerns and information with gratitude and open arms. Because ignorance remains, they may be insulted. They may be angry. Most of all, they’ll be afraid. Fight their fear with the facts. You can find many of the facts about the treatability of depression and bipolar disorder on this CBF website. Specifically, checkout these blog entries:

“A Glimpse into Just How Prevalent Mood Disorders Are”
“Steeler Quarterback Terry Bradshaw: Anxious & Depressed?”
“More Tough Men with Depression”
“To Parents of Children with Bipolar Disorder: Your Child Will Work and Contribute”

“To Parents of Children with Bipolar Disorder: The Government Has Your Back”

After I Drop the Bombshell, Then What?

If your friend and the family take your concerns seriously, they will begin the process of exploring a possible mood disorder. Your friend will still need your support. Below are some of the best ways friends help each other when a mood disorder appears.

  1. Encourage your friend to get help. Start with a school counselor who could recommend other specialists. Tell them that you’ll be happy to go with them if they’d like.

  2. Learn about depression or bipolar disorder yourself. As you may be the only one willing to explore these disorders, you could be a source of reliable information. Trust the non-profit and government websites the most. Visit the websites listed at the end of this article.

  1. Make certain you maintain an upbeat attitude about the prospects for a healthy, fulfilling life complete with career and relationships. A mood disorder diagnosis does not mean a circumscribed life. Remind them that there is no reason to be ashamed.

  2. Invite them to activities with friends or just out with you. Keep in mind that they may refuse at first. Keep at it. You can also stay with them watching a movie or bring in take-out food.

  3. Encourage them to attend a California Bipolar Foundation support group meeting. There, they’ll feel less alone and realize that people with mood disorders can be happy, fun and normal.

  4. Finally, know that despite your best efforts, your friend may not choose to get treatment. Do not feel that you are responsible for making your friend better. Protect your energy and your own mood. Recruit help from other friends and family members.

What If my Friend Is Talking About Suicide?

This is a serious situation. Research shows that those who discuss their suicidal thoughts (or outline a plan) eventually make an attempt. Further, young adults can be impulsive. Where a suicidal adult may take six months thinking it over, a teen may act impulsively and if he or she has the means, one rash decision and extreme mood could end a life.

If you’re concerned about your friend, you can gently ask if he or she has had suicidal thoughts recently. Simply asking will not prompt your friend to make an attempt. Your question will not put the idea in your friend’s mind either. If your friend is suicidal, the family and a counselor need to know.

Impress upon your friend that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The problem can be resolved. And don’t tolerate listening to your friend’s black outlook on life. Suicidal people have a chemical imbalance. They do not perceive life realistically no matter how certain they are that they can see things even more clearly than you! (Check out our blog entry “Does Life HAVE to Be So Difficult?”)

Your friend CAN feel better. Ask them to trust your judgment. Impress upon them that their brains are not giving them correct messages right now and that they CAN feel better. Share with them the quotes about suicide in Blog “Good Quotes About Suicide to Use on Your Suicidal Friends.”

Finally, remove all weapons, drugs, alcohol or other things with which they can injure themselves.

Most of all, encourage your friend to call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. The highly trained suicide counselors there know exactly what to say. They’ve heard about

every situation and discussed options with a wide range of personalities. They can give your friend action steps to take so that she or he can get help and treatment.

What If My Suicidal Friend Doesn’t Listen to Me?

You can talk all you want, but, for some, the decision is made. They refuse help and treatment, putting you in a terrible situation.

Their refusal to get help doesn’t render you helpless.

As angry as it may make your friend and maybe even their family, when a friend won’t get help and continues to talk about suicide, CALL 911. Explain what your friend has been saying. If the situation merits it, the dispatcher will send police to your friend’s home or place of work. The police will help get your friend to a facility where caring doctors will help him or her understand the seriousness of the situation. These days, facilities are clean and well-run (the plethora of lawsuits have put an end to the frightening psychiatric operations you may have seen in old movies). Getting to the hospital can serve as a wake-up call for your friend and those around her who must know the seriousness of the situation.

Finally, You Are a Good Friend

That you are on this site means that you’re a good friend, a good person. Know that in your heart, no matter what those around you may say. Our society tends to want to keep problems hush-hush, particularly if family problems are involved. Possible mental health problems can raise more embarrassment. Suggesting that your friend may have a mood disorder could result in your friend refusing to see you. Your friend’s parents may even refuse to let the two of you get together.

These reactions stem from ignorance. While at first they hurt, you can take comfort in the fact that you’ve done the right thing.

All that shame and anger will dissipate. If you act in good faith and your friend gets help (eventually?), you will have put a life on the right path at the right time. And that’s an accomplishment to be proud of. 


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