How do bipolar children interact with the world?

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The Future

In many ways, bipolar illness is a solitary struggle. Children, and the people who love them, have to face up to demons that others never even know about. But families say society can help in a few concrete ways. For one, offer children with bipolar disorder the same sympathy and respect as kids with cancer or diabetes. Fund special education so that schools can give these volatile children a better place to learn. Push for more scientific research on childhood bipolar to help doctors, teachers, and parents identify the illness early and accurately. And remember that a bipolar diagnosis does not represent the end of hope.

"These children are delightful, charming, wonderful senses of humor. So I think that we should look at the positive as well as what can be the hugely negative for these children," says Janice Papolos, co-author of The Bipolar Child. "And I don't know how these children get up and face the day. They don't know how the day is going to go. They don't know what the next 20 minutes is going to bring for them, nor do the parents. But with proper diagnosis and treatment, they have every chance for a really good life."

In the meantime, Athena, Eric, and Erin are just focused on growing up.

"When you have bipolar," says Athena, "life is like one huge adventure, it's like, 'O.K., what's gonna happen today?'"

"I like making people laugh," says Eric, "so if I can do that for a living and get paid for that, then that will be wonderful. ... My hero, Conan O'Brien, has bipolar disorder. I love him. He's the coolest guy in the world. And if the coolest guy in the world has bipolar disorder, then like I have it too, so it's cool." "I see bipolar as like a gift and a curse," says Erin. "It's like you know you're given this horrible burden of, you know, living with this life altering disorder. But, on the other hand, it gives you all this creativity, and all different, you know, views of the world. You know, there's so many great people in history who were bipolar, and it just gives you something that other people don't have."

For now, Erin is learning to play more Nirvana tunes on guitar. She's thinking about going to college. Some days she's not sure she could handle it. Other days she figures, "Why not?" Maybe there she'll get answers to questions she's had her whole life.

"I want to go into special ed teaching and then after that, go to school to do psychological research to learn like why I'm the way I am, and why the kids I work with are the way they are," says Erin. "And maybe help some people, and you know, find out why they need certain things. The brain is just so mysterious; nobody really knows how it works."

Thousands of parents today are holding out for new research on such questions as, "Can kids as young as preschoolers be diagnosed with bipolar illness and treated? Is there a drug that can change their brain chemistry back to normal, before they miss out on critical developmental milestones?" And, "How can families learn to control manic outbursts and deep depressions?" With luck, say the parents of Erin, Eric and Athena, these answers will come out in time to put their own children on a healthy and stable path to adulthood.

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