One side effect of the pandemic is the increase in mental health problems in children and adolescents. This increase is dramatic and deeply concerning. It is scary for both parents and for all the professionals that care for them. There is a lot of energy and very thoughtful concerns about why there is an increase, but one thing is true. More access to mental health professionals is urgently needed. Particularly more access to professionals trained in child and adolescent mental health.
Most people are aware that teenagers are moody, sometimes hyper and sometimes depressed. Many of us assume that, with love and understanding our kids will manage somehow. At the same time, it is known that 17-20% of young people lives with a mental health condition that won’t get better without professional help.
Once known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a brain condition that causes extreme changes in mood. As knowledge has increased, it is broken down into types of disorders: bipolar I, bipolar II or cyclothymia. It used to be considered that bipolar disorders were an adult mental health condition. It is now known that around 1-2% of all US children under 18 live with a bipolar disorder.
Children living with bipolar disorders might show symptoms that are confusingly similar to those of other common childhood mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder as well as major depression. It is important to make a clear diagnosis as there are different treatments for different disorders.
When should a parent worry about their child? A child experiencing mania may do some of the following: act incredibly happy or silly, talk rapidly, hopping from subject to subject, need less sleep, plus many more. A child who is depressed may show the following: feel sad, discourage or hopeless, show more anger and irritability than usual, complain of pain or brain fog, sleep more, or have trouble getting to sleep plus many more including talking about death or suicide.
For more information check healthychildren.org/bipolar.
A parent should call their pediatrician if they notice that their child’s mood shifts get in the way of their child ability to handle everyday life, see episodes of intense “highs” and/or “lows”, see dramatically different ways their child used to feel or act and their school, sports family life is suffering. Parents are not expected to make a diagnosis but should feel free to express concern to their child’s health care provider and ask for help. We now know that these brain conditions are caused from genetic reasons, infections, and trauma.
Children whose lives are disrupted by mental health symptoms will NOT just “snap out of it”. They can struggle for years. Treatment after an appropriate diagnosis may be a combination of medication, cognitive (talk) therapy and calming strategies. Adequate sleep is crucial for brain health. Call 988 immediately if your child is thinking of suicide. 988 can also give resources.
A child with a bipolar disorder can live a healthy, meaningful life.
by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy