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Bipolar Disorder Factsheet (for Schools)

What Teachers Should Know

Bipolar disorder affects how the brain works, causing shifts in a person’s moods, energy levels, and behavior. It’s also called manic depression, manic-depressive disorder, manic-depressive illness, and bipolar affective disorder.

People with bipolar disorder go through episodes of low-energy depression and high-energy mania.

Depression episodes may include:

  • sadness or feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • tiredness
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • sleeping too much or trouble sleeping
  • trouble concentrating and a drop in academic performance
  • inability to experience pleasure
  • overeating or loss of appetite
  • anger, worry, or anxiety
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Mania episodes may include:

  • increased physical and mental activity
  • racing speech and thoughts
  • elevated mood and exaggerated optimism
  • inflated sense of self-importance
  • decreased need for sleep
  • trouble concentrating
  • reckless or aggressive behavior
  • anger, excessive irritability, or impatience
  • poor judgment and making rash decisions

Kids and teens with bipolar disorder may have sudden mood changes throughout the day. Even when mood is stable, children with bipolar disorder often have other learning problems.

Students with bipolar disorder may:

  • need to sit near the front of the room to help avoid distractions
  • show drops in grades and changes in class participation
  • need extra time for tests and assignments or modified schedules
  • miss class time due to visits with health care professionals
  • need to visit the school nurse for medicine
  • need a plan to deal with side effects from medicines, including sleepiness, thirst, needing to pee often, and hunger
  • need to talk with a school counselor or psychologist periodically
  • be at a higher risk for suicide

What Teachers Can Do

Treatment for bipolar disorder usually involves the use of medicines and counseling or psychotherapy. Teachers need to watch for extreme behavioral changes or any signs of suicidal thoughts. Educators should take these signs seriously. The student’s parents or guardians, psychologist, or other health care professionals will have a plan for how to respond to such situations.

Provide a consistent schedule, and offer praise for positive behaviors. Encourage students with bipolar disorder to participate in all school-based activities as best they can, when they can. Students with bipolar disorder should have a behavior intervention plan in place.

Plan and agree on a “safe place” with your student — a place to go if they feel overwhelmed or just need to relax. You also can agree on a “safe person” (such as the school counselor) your student can talk to. When your student needs to go to the safe place or talk with the safe person, allow for a discreet exit without drawing their classmates’ attention.

If the student does not have an individualized education plan (IEP) or a 504 education plan, talk with a school counselor, psychologist, or social worker to develop a plan with parents or guardians. If the student does have an IEP or 504, follow the plan’s requirements.