Recently, some folks from a book club in the US contacted me after they’d read and discussed my 2018 memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country. They’re all foster and/or adoptive parents, and wanted to learn how to more effectively help children and youth in their care who are struggling with a variety of mental health issues. As part of my mission to promote mental health education and reduce the stigma around mental illness, I offer free sessions with book club members and other community groups. So we set up a date and time for a Zoom session in February 2022.
As usual, I asked the group to brainstorm ahead of time and submit a list of potential questions, so I could tailor the session to meet their particular needs. We ended up with a list of 13 insightful—and often heartbreaking—questions. For example, some parents felt that they were “losing their own minds” from the stress of dealing with the severe challenges of their adoptive/foster children.
I’ll share a few of their questions with my responses here, and will save the rest for a future blog post.
To get the most out of your time with this post, you may want to pause after each question to formulate your own response before reading mine below.
Q1: Is bipolar disorder more common in younger or older people?
Bipolar most commonly emerges in early adulthood, with the average age of onset being 18–24 years. However, it can sometimes start in early childhood, or as late as in the 40s or 50s, as was the case for me. (I was 51 when I first experienced symptoms and was diagnosed.)
“Juvenile bipolar disorder” only became a recognized diagnosis in the mid-1990s. Experts warn that a teen with major depression may well be heading towards an eventual diagnosis of bipolar. (Apparently, some 20% of adolescents with major depression go on to develop bipolar disorder within five years of the onset of depression.)
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that the signs and symptoms of bipolar are very different in children and youth compared to adults. For example, when manic, children and adolescents are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive outbursts than to be elated or euphoric like manic adults. (Manic children may experience “severe irritability” and “affective storms”.) When depressed, on the other hand, youngsters may complain of physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, or tiredness. As well, there is often poor performance in school, irritability, social isolation, and extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure.
Parents obviously need to be aware of these differences.
Q2: What was the one thing that helped you get your life back after you were diagnosed?
I have to credit—with absolutely no hesitation—my prescribed bipolar medications. (Even though, as I describe in my memoir, I initially resisted taking them, and even refused to accept my diagnosis, in fact! It took me some time to come to a place of acceptance.)
Then, once I was finally stabilized on meds—a process that took about two years in my case—daily mood and trigger tracking (read my tips about this here and here) became essential to keep me on track. And my comprehensive self-care program (see Mad Like Me, Appendix 3, as well as this blog post) has also been vital, and remains so to this day, more than a decade later.
Finally, family support has been a lifeline for me, and I’ve been incredibly blessed to have the initial and ongoing support of my husband, Rob, and (then-teenaged, now young adult) children through all the dramas of my disorder. Thank you to all of them!
Q3: Do you think bipolar only happens to those with trauma in their past?
The jury is still out concerning trauma and “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) as possible causative factors.
In my own case, I can say that my menopausal hormone upheavals combined with the extreme stress and emotional trauma I subjected myself to over one of our children’s school-related crisis is what tipped me from mental health into bipolar disorder. (I explain all this in Mad Like Me.)
Thanks to all the book club members who submitted these thoughtful questions and joined me for a virtual Q&A, and thanks to you for reading this. More in the next blog post!
If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address in a future blog post, please use the Contact form to send them in.