Bipolar disorder: for young people

This webpage gives some basic information about bipolar affective disorder and some practical advice on how to get help.


This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Similar genetic ‘risk factors’ are involved in whether someone develops bipolar disorder, severe depression or schizophrenia. There are also environmental risk factors, and these can interact with genetic risk factors to increase or decrease your risk of developing these conditions.

For example, you might have genetic risk factors that mean you are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. However, if you grow up or live in a stable and positive environment this may reduce your risk of developing a serious mental illness.

Having a parent with a serious mental illness like bipolar is the strongest known risk factor for developing a serious mental illness yourself. Children with a parent who has a serious mental illness have a 1 in 3 chance of developing a serious mental illness themselves.

When thinking about the causes of developing bipolar disorder, it is important to remember that lots of different things are involved, and that no single risk factor causes bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is extremely rare in young children, but there are quite a few studies that suggest that it may start in teenage years and in early adult life. It affects about one in 100 adults.

In bipolar affective disorder a person can have (1) manic/hypomanic episodes, (2) depressive episodes or (3) mixed episodes.

There are different types of this disorder depending on how severe the symptoms are or how long they last.

The mood changes can sometimes happen very rapidly within hours or days (sometimes called rapid cycling). For some people, the mood symptoms are less severe (sometimes called ‘cyclothymia’).

In between the highs and lows, there are usually ‘normal’ periods that can last for weeks or months. However, for some people, especially when they have had disorder from some time, these periods of ‘normalcy’ can be shorter or difficult to see.

Below is a list of the sort of symptoms that can occur in each type of episode. You need to have at least one manic or hypomanic episode to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

You need to have several symptoms at the same time for at least several days. If there is just one symptom, then it is unlikely to be bipolar disorder.

Symptoms that can occur during a ‘high’ or manic episode

  • feeling incredibly happy or 'high' in mood, or very excited
  • feeling irritable
  • talking too much -increased talkativeness
  • racing thoughts
  • increased activity and restlessness
  • difficulty in concentrating, constant changes in plans
  • over confidence and inflated ideas about yourself or your abilities
  • decreased need for sleep
  • not looking after yourself
  • increased sociability or over-familiarity
  • increased sexual energy
  • overspending of money or other types of reckless or extreme behaviour.

Hypomania is a milder form of mania (less severe and for shorter periods). During these periods people can feel very productive and creative and so see these experiences as positive and valuable.

However, hypomania, if left untreated, can become more severe, and may be followed by an episode of depression. At the extreme end, some people also develop something called ‘psychosis'.

Symptoms that can occur during a depressive episode 

  • feeling very sad most of the time
  • decreased energy and activity
  • not being able to enjoy things you normally like doing
  • lack of appetite
  • disturbed sleep
  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

On the milder end, you may just feel sad and gloomy all the time. Here too, at the extreme end, some people can develop psychosis (see our factsheet on psychosis).

Symptoms that can occur during a mixed episode

  • A mixture of manic symptoms and depressive symptoms at the same time.

The exaggerated thoughts, feelings and behaviours can impact on many aspects of life, for example:

  • loss of confidence
  • loss of sense of control a person feels over their life
  • poor concentration with studies
  • problems with relationships with family and friends
  • behaviour that places a young person's health or life at risk.

The first step is recognising that there might be a problem. Other people are likely to have noticed that you seem different from your usual self, particularly those who live with you. Speak to people who might know you well, such as family and friends.

  • behaviour that could place your health or life at risk, like drinking alcohol or using drugs.

In the short term, depending on whether you are high or low and how severe it is, you may need different treatments.

When you have severe symptoms, you may need medications and also sometimes admission to hospital to help your symptoms and also keep you safe.

In the long term, the goal of treatment is to help you have a healthy, balanced and productive life.

This would include understanding the condition, controlling the symptoms and preventing the illness from coming back. Below we briefly describe each aspect of the treatment:

Help with understanding yourself and the illness (psychoeducation)

It is very important that you and your family are helped to understand bipolar disorder, how best to cope and what to do to reduce the chances of it coming back.

You and your family may notice ‘triggers’ to your episodes and/or early warning signs that an episode is starting.

Being aware of these can help reduce the chance of episodes occurring and getting help in the earliest stages of an episode can stop it from getting worse.

Talking treatments (also known as ‘psychological therapies’)

These may include different types of therapies like:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

The young person, sometimes with their family, learns to understand the links between their feelings and thoughts and how this affects their behaviour (see our factsheet on CBT).

  • Family-focused treatment (family therapy) - The whole family can be helped to reduce stress, solve problems and communicate better.


Medication plays an important role in the treatment of bipolar disorder, especially if episodes are severe.

The choice of medication can depend upon the type of episode (manic or depressed). Everyone is different, and so the type of medication that is recommended will also be different.

Medications can have mild or even severe side-effects. Your psychiatrist will be able to advise about what they are and about what can be done to help.

The risk of side-effects needs to be balanced against the risk of the damaging effects of the illness on a person's life.

Antipsychotic medications are usually used for high/manic episodes, while antidepressant medications are used for the low/depressive episodes.

You may also need medications called mood stabilizers (e.g. lithium) which help to keep your mood stable both during and between episodes.

It is important that medications are not taken only when the problems are serious. If you have had more than one severe episode of illness, staying on medication is important to reduce the risk of further episodes.

Medication may be needed for months or even years. Some people may, under medical supervision, be able to stop their medication when they have recovered and have felt well for a while.

You may need physical examination and tests (like blood test) before starting or while you are on medication. It is important that if you are prescribed medication, you are regularly seen by your doctor or psychiatrist.

The high or low episodes can last from a few weeks to months. It is important to recognise that you are not alone and to keep up hope. Some people only have one or two episodes. For others the highs and lows can occur through their adult life. When this happens, it is important that you learn to live with it and manage it.

  • The first step is recognising that something is different or a problem. Other people are likely to have noticed that you seem different from your usual self, particularly those who live with you.
  • Speak to people who know you well, such as family and friends.
  • Seeking medical advice early on is very important. If the bipolar illness can be identified and treated quickly, this reduces its harmful effects.
  • If you already have a diagnosis, understand your illness and problems. This can help you to take control and get help before it gets more difficult. This can mean steps like planning for a crisis and making choices about your career.
  • Do things which help you to have a good health, like having a balanced healthy diet, doing some exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Try to identify what makes you feel ‘stressed’ and identify ways of dealing with it.

You may need to see your GP to talk about your concerns. They can then refer you to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) who can offer more specialist help.

If you have a school counsellor/nurse or learning mentor, they can also be a useful person to talk to and may also be able to refer you to the local child and adolescent mental health services.

"I was a happy, confident person studying for 11 GCSEs, and enjoying a good social life with a large circle of friends.  All seemed well in my life.

Suddenly from feeling really cheerful, happy and full of energy, I withdrew to my room, stopped eating and stopped talking to everybody, even my parents. I was having vivid hallucinations, became paranoid and even thought about hurting myself. 

My parents became really worried and eventually I was admitted to a child and adolescent psychiatric unit.

I now realise that I was manic before I plunged into black depression. One I was diagnosed as bi-polar (manic depressive), I was able to understand and come to terms with my illness. Medication was given  to me to deal with the mood swings, together with a talking therapy.

With support from my family and friends, I am now back at school and I hope to go to medical school in the next couple of years."

"Rachel is fifteen-year-old girl who has suffered episodes of depression in the past. Two months ago she started to talk very quickly and seemed to have lots of energy. She was excited about everything and was making all her friends laugh a lot.

Over a three-day period Rachel barely slept or ate and started to say things that did not really make sense; for example, she told friends that was a princess in Taiwan. She also started swearing and became extremely flirtatious, which was out of character. She is quoted as saying, "I've never felt so great - I'm flying. I'm eleven on a scale of one to ten."

Rachel's parents were very worried and on the fourth night of her not sleeping, they took her to the local A&E department, where she was seen by a psychiatrist who arranged for her to stay in hospital. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder was confirmed and treatment was given to bring Rachel's mood back to normal. She now has treatment to help prevent episodes of both depressed and abnormally high mood in the future.

She has been working with a community psychiatric nurse to improve her abillity to recognise her own mood state and take measures to protect herself from further episodes."

Extract from The Young Mind: an essential guide to mental health for young adults, parents and teachers.

Bipolar UK  - Helps people with bipolar disorder/manic depression, their relatives, friends and others who care, and educates the public and caring professions about bipolar disorder. They produce a range of leaflets and support a network of self-help groups around the UK.

Epic friends -  Mental health problems are common. This website is all about helping you to help your friends who might be struggling emotionally. 

Rethink Mental Illness- A charity which helps people affected by a severe mental illness to recover a better quality of life. There is a section on the website for young people.

Sane - A national charity which improves the quality of life for people affected by mental illness.

Young Minds- A charity committed to improving the emotional well-being and mental health of children and young people. YoungMinds have also developed HeadMeds which gives young people in England general information about medication. HeadMeds does not give you medical advice. Please talk to your Doctor or anyone else who is supporting you about your own situation because everyone is different.


National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (2016). Bipolar disorder: assessment and management Clinical guideline [CG185] 

Leibenluft E & Dickstein DP (2008). Bipolar disorder in Children and Adolescents. In: Rutter M et al. (eds) (2008) Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (5th edn). Oxford: Blackwell. Pp894-905.

Fristad MA, Verducci JS, Walters K, Young ME (2009). Impact of multifamily psycho educational psychotherapy in treating children aged 8 to 12 years with mood disorders.Archives of General Psychiatry; 66(9):1013-1021.

Evidence-based guidelines for treating bipolar disorder: revised second edition, British Association for Psychopharmacology (March 2009)

Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Fifth Edition (2008). Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell.


Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. This mental health information for young people was written in 2015.


© 2015 Royal College of Psychiatrists