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Doctors, Meds & Friends

A Little Insight from a Bipolar Teen

By Kimberly Read

Updated February 28, 2011

For a number of years, the media has kept the controversy of diagnosing early onset bipolar disorder – actually even the question of its existence – a hot topic of discussion. Particularly the very polarizing issue of treating kids with psychotropic medications not adequately researched or approved for children or adolescents. Most of these reports approach the topic from the perspective of the medical/psychiatric professionals or the pharmaceutical industry. Some include the frustrations of the parents and the impact on the family. However, only a handful ask the kids for their input.

Research to date has been fairly definitive about the fact that the symptoms of bipolar disorder are very different for adults and kids (see our Red Flags series). But the differences go much further than that. Adults, for the most part, get to pick their own psychiatrists and set their own appointments. Adults can draw their own lines about when and if they take medications. Adults even have a great deal of autonomy in deciding who does and does not find out about their diagnosis. Not so for kids!

So I decided to ask a kid about these issues …

I would like to introduce Zach. Zach is fourteen and just graduated from middle school. He is looking forward to high school next year, but he is really excited about hanging with friends for the summer and maybe getting a part-time job. He loves building MySpaces and skateboarding -- so much so with the boarding that he has turf-toe from the repetitive action and a few proudly-borne scars from road rash. And yes, Zach is a real flesh and blood kid.

I sat down with him and talked to him about his diagnosis and medication (not the turf-toe). Zach has bipolar disorder and takes Abilify. We had a great conversation -- between very important cell phone calls, of course!

Kimberly: So, Zach, you see a psychiatrist. What do you think about that?

Zach: I don't mind, but I don't always want to go. Sometimes I'm not in the mood. I don't want to share or talk about things right then. I want to talk about things when they happen or when I think about them. Not when I have to go to the doctor. I like my school counselor cause she is like right there with me at school and she knows. I can go there when I want or when I feel like talking and she has known me for a long time.

Kimberly: Do you know why you go to your psychiatrist?

Zach: Yeah, I know. I know I have bipolar disorder, but I can't always explain like when my friends ask.

Kimberly: So your friends know about you having bipolar disorder?

Zach: Some of them, but more know I take medicine because of staying at their houses and stuff.

Kimberly: Are your friends cool about it?

Zach: Sometimes I worry that they will make fun of me, but kids don't really seem to care or make a big deal out of it anymore. Lots of kids take meds.

Kimberly: So you don't mind that you have to take meds?

Zach: Not really. Sometimes I wonder how long I will need them, but I don't really worry about it.

Kimberly: Do you think you need to take meds? Do they help?

Zach: I don't know. Yeah, I guess. I mean I need them, but it is hard to remember to take them all the time.

Kimberly: How do you remember? Does your mom remind you?

Zach: Yeah, my mom reminds me and now I set my cell phone alarm and I've been better. But it makes me mad when people ask me if I took my meds because we're like arguing or I'm mad or something.

Kimberly: So it ticks you off when people think you wouldn't be mad or upset if you had taken your meds.

Zach: Yeah. They don't know. I do get mad. Everybody does.

And there our conversation ended because the last cell call meant it was time to meet his friends. I had a few more questions, but I think this dialog made a couple of great points.

First, we so often hear horror stories about fighting for our kids' rights at school and getting them the help they need. Zach sought out his school counselor himself and she has been a great resource for him throughout his middle school career. In Educating and Nurturing the Bipolar Child, Janice Papolos shares some wonderful tips for making your school a valuable ally.

Also, Zach was very adamant about how angry it made him when people discounted his feelings by assuming that every time he gets angry or frustrated it is an episode, and ignoring the fact that he is a normal kid who has feelings, too. This is an important point for all of us to remember!

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