Children's Hospital Colorado

Bipolar Disorder in Children

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic changes in mood that are different from a person's usual mood. Mood changes occur in periods called episodes, which last anywhere from several days to months.

What causes bipolar disorder?

Doctors and researchers don't know what causes bipolar disorder. A person's life experience, environment and family background all play a role. People who have an immediate family member with bipolar disorder are more likely to develop the disorder themselves. However, many others with a family member who have bipolar disorder never get it themselves. Many people with bipolar disorder have no family history.

Who gets bipolar disorder?

The most severe types of bipolar disorder affect about 3% of people. The condition occurs equally in males and females. Obvious manic episodes usually happen in adolescence or adulthood, so the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is often late.

It's difficult to predict whether a child will develop a manic episode. Still, some clues in childhood suggest risk for developing bipolar disorder. For example, a child who has a family history of bipolar disorder and brief, two-day manic episodes is at risk.

What are the types of mood episodes and symptoms?

  • Mania: Symptoms include elevated mood or irritability
  • Depression: Symptoms include sadness, apathy or irritability
  • Mixed: Symptoms include a mixture of mania and depression

To have bipolar disorder, someone must have experienced an episode with manic symptoms. Clinicians use other symptoms to clarify which mood episode is occurring.

The intensity and duration of mood episodes determine the type of bipolar disorder.

How do providers at Children's Hospital Colorado diagnose bipolar disorder?

All patients receiving mental health services at Children's Colorado undergo a comprehensive assessment with a qualified clinician. Your clinician may ask your permission to speak with professionals in the community, such as school officials, primary care providers or social service liaisons.

Our patients also complete well-tested questionnaires that are used to help identify a child who has been experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder. After our team reviews all information carefully, anyone who is suspected to have bipolar disorder will also receive an evaluation by a psychiatrist at the Children's Colorado Pediatric Mental Health Institute.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

While there is no cure for bipolar disorder, treatment can help to predict, reduce and prevent future mood episodes.

At the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children's Colorado, we adhere to best practices for the treatment of bipolar disorder, which includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Youth with bipolar disorder are most often treated in outpatient mental health clinics. However, mood episodes can be severe and risky. During these times, a person may require more intensive care, through a stay in our Partial Hospitalization day treatment or Inpatient Programs.

With each episode, the likelihood and risk associated with future episodes increases. As such, earlier intervention is associated with better outcomes.

Helpful resources for bipolar disorder: