Reading a list of mental health symptoms is simple, but often, recognizing them as they appear in your own life can be a challenge. The frequent coexistence of multiple symptoms or indicators of mood disorders can make it even harder to develop self-awareness. 

In this post, 3 members of DBSA’s Young Adult Council share their early experiences with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, and explain how they found the right treatment.  

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Olivia’s story

 I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder in 8th grade, but my symptoms presented much earlier. Between 3rd and 5th grade, I became very aware of the various stressors impacting my family members and what I thought my peers were thinking about me, both socially and physically. I felt hopeless to make any changes, and I felt like I didn’t have control over anything; these are thoughts that I still wrestle with when I experience a depressive episode.

When I was 11, I decided to tie my self-worth to the only things I thought I could control: my academic performance and food. Looking back, I recognize that several factors contributed to the development of my mental health diagnoses. These included bullying, a terminally ill family member, and a family history of depression and suicidal thoughts.

At the time, I became very secretive about my emotions and behaviors. My parents would ask me how school or soccer practice was going. At one time, I might have responded with paragraph-length answers, but soon I was simply saying, “good” or “fine”. I also found myself becoming irritable when anyone would try to push beyond those short responses. It’s odd to describe conversations with an elementary schooler as deep, but my conversations became, what was for me, unusually surface level. I recognize now that isolation and irrational thoughts can compound each other, something I started to experience at this point in my life. I remember a serious decrease in my self-confidence, in terms of social skills, body image, and general worthiness. 

Even at such a young age, I felt that openly expressing my symptoms and thoughts to my parents would be a burden.

Even at such a young age, I felt that openly expressing my symptoms and thoughts to my parents would be a burden. Side note: I was wrong. My parents are now aware of my diagnoses and symptoms, and they are incredibly supportive.

Eventually, my compulsion to keep my struggles private led me to engage in self-harm. In 8th grade, my best friend found out about my self-harming behaviors. Thankfully, he told a school counselor and I was able to get medical help. 

Now that I’m older, I can recognize several important lessons in my experience. The first is to trust my intuitions. Despite my diagnosis in 8th grade, I didn’t have my first panic attack until I was 15. Two of my family members dismissed this attack as “going too hard at soccer practice.”  Anyone who has experienced a panic attack can understand the difference. Over time,  I’ve learned to trust my instincts and seek additional treatment when I need it.

I’ve also learned that different symptoms can present themselves at different times. It wasn’t until I got to college that I experienced feeling so worn out and hopeless that I slept 12 to 14 hours a day. I also learned that sometimes, it takes a lot of time and many attempts to find the right therapist. I didn’t click with the therapist I started with in 8th grade. This didn’t mean that therapy wouldn’t work for me; it just meant I didn’t find the right provider on the first try. The  therapists I saw in college had a life-long impact on me. One of them taught me another important lesson: it takes time to break early habits, because you’ve had them so long. It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

The final lesson I’ve learned is that children’s feelings are valid. According to experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the average age of diagnosis for bipolar disorder and depression is mid- to late- 20s. It’s important to recognize that this is an average age. If you’re a young adult, or the parent of someone in their early 20s, I hope you’ll keep this in mind. In my experience, average ages have no impact on the severity of symptoms. Everyone, regardless of age, deserves validation and treatment. Everyone deserves a healthy life. 

M.J.’s story

My current diagnosis of bipolar II was made my freshman year of college, but I’ve experienced symptoms since my early teens. After an emotionally tumultuous year that involved the death of a close family member and an attempted abduction, I began going to therapy and was treated for PTSD. I started exhibiting minor depressive symptoms varying from difficulty focusing to fully withdrawing from activities and interests. These symptoms, along with growing social anxiety, resulted in a diagnosis of ADHD when I was 14.

I felt alone and afraid to connect with my peers; moreover, I felt like I wasn’t understanding some key element of emotional health.

My social anxiety ebbed and flowed for a few years, feeding depressive and self-critical thoughts, and fueling self-destructive social habits. I felt alone and afraid to connect with my peers; moreover, I felt like I wasn’t understanding some key element of emotional health. I was embarrassed that I faced recurring depressive symptoms, and frustrated that I wasn’t getting better, the way I would if I had a physical illness or injury. When I was originally diagnosed with PTSD, my therapist said it just takes time, but time didn’t seem to be helping.

Longer depressive episodes that were relatively few and far between in my early adolescence geared up when I started applying to colleges. Soon, I was experiencing an episode every 3 months. Hypomanic symptoms started to kick in around this time as well. I was academically and socially overwhelmed in the spring of my junior year of high school; I remember a month of seemingly continuous finals, standardized tests, applications, interviews, and work. I experienced several minor mental and emotional breaks where I was unable to process anything, but my mind couldn’t stop racing and I was unable to sleep. While my therapist at this time was extremely helpful in teaching me how to manage my stress, she agreed with my family that I was just experiencing school-induced overstimulation. In retrospect, I know I didn’t spend enough time resting and practicing self-care, which exaggerated my symptoms and may have triggered my hypomanic episodes.

With summer came a more manageable schedule, but even as school pressures eased up, every few months I would go through phases of extreme sociability and energy, followed by depressive episodes of complete exhaustion and self-doubt. (Just as Olivia did, I underplayed my symptoms so as to not be a burden” on my family. I used euphemisms to avoid sharing exactly how I was feeling, and they learned to give me space when I was “blue.”) 

While the depressive episodes were terrible bouts of feeling empty and alone, I learned to love the hypomanic episodes. I felt effortlessly charming and the world seemed brighter; the disappearance of my social anxiety alone was intoxicating and I engaged others with ease during these times. However, just as I’d learned to love the emotional highs, I knew that at the end of each hypomanic episode I’d slip into a depression again and recede into my room for several days. 

Between the fairly regular cycles of energy and depression, I had an inkling that I might have a mood disorder. However, I was adamant that with regular counseling and the self-care tools I used to cope with my episodes, I could manage my mood swings without medication. I was afraid that as soon as I was formally diagnosed with a mood disorder, I would lose agency over my treatment. I imagined that, after an official diagnosis, I would be forced to take medications that I feared would have a negative impact on my life.

It wasn’t until I started college that I realized I needed backup, in the form of a knowledgeable support network and a psychiatrist. I told my family and friends exactly what I was experiencing, and explained how they could help support me. My psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar II, and suggested medication that helped stabilize my moods without the negative side effects I’d feared.

Lauren’s story

It was the spring quarter of my last year in college when I experienced my first hypomanic episode. With graduation coming up, the stress of figuring out post-college life may have been what triggered my sleepless nights and frenetic project-making. 

The earliest signs were staying up until 6 am and feeling energized after only 3 hours of sleep, as I was caught up in creating a lifestyle and self-help blog. I thought it would be life-changing for people. I remember typing up many documents with 60+ ideas for blog posts and staying up late developing them. Another sign was the energy and drive that I had in creating what I felt was an especially clever presentation about photography for a media class. I was so proud of myself for creating an acronym that captured my ideas and thought my classmates would revel in the novelty of the concept. I also checked out at least 20 library books, thinking I would read them all for the paper I had to write along with the presentation. My excitement at the available campus events that I could attend also took over, as I tried to sign up for as many as possible — from cultural group events to mental health workshops. In addition, I felt that I had to take as many classes as I possibly could, so I made an extensive list of classes that I could audit. 

Not only did I feel compelled to be more productive and more actively involved at school, but I also felt especially social, which meant starting to talk with strangers. My friends and roommates couldn’t get a word in edgewise when I chatted with them in person. I couldn’t talk fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. I felt more engaging and overall, more interesting to talk with. It was exhilarating but also came with its drawbacks. I was noticeably more irritable and more easily angered by others, even becoming verbally aggressive. I snapped at a lady who was in line in front of me for what I perceived as rudely cutting in front of me; her eyes widened with surprise and confusion. I launched a verbal barrage at a family who had parked their car in my parking spot at my apartment, not letting up as I felt an intense rage flow through me. They yelled back in defense as they tried to calm me down, but it was difficult for me to come back down after my emotions quickly went from 0 to 100. I often felt ashamed and embarrassed after these outbursts, not recognizing the person who I had become.

Although I felt invigorated and impassioned while I was hypomanic, I learned that often what came with the highs were the extreme lows.

Although I felt invigorated and impassioned while I was hypomanic, I learned that often what came with the highs were the extreme lows. I experienced my first major depressive episode in the summer after graduating, made much worse by my self-blame and feelings of inadequacy for not knowing what I was doing next. While I knew that I shouldn’t compare myself to others, I couldn’t help but feel envious towards classmates and friends posting on social media about their white-coat ceremonies as they headed off to medical school or pharmacy school. I had decided to take a couple of summer classes, thinking I would need them in case I decided to pursue medical school myself. Yet I wanted to sleep all the time, and I laid in bed throughout the day, unable to get myself to lectures. Eventually, I withdrew from the lecture halls altogether, as I had stopped attending since the second week of the quarter. It was also difficult to concentrate and focus on anything with my brain feeling like it was in a fog. I lost my appetite and didn’t eat much during the day, losing about 10 pounds. I stopped responding to messages from friends and family, leaving them to wonder about me, as I stayed listless and unmotivated in bed.

I did seek treatment from a psychiatrist and psychologist at my college counseling center during these high and low, but it took me some time to become settled with a team that I felt comfortable with. I remember feeling lost and unsure at first about how to have the conversation about my symptoms, and I had to process the feelings that came with this newfound diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. Knowing what I know now, I would encourage anyone who is having symptoms to immediately seek the help they need at the earliest possible point. Taking care of one’s own mental health is a journey that is unique to each person, and it does not necessarily require a “mental breakdown” to make your start. However, it is helpful to recognize these early signs and learn about the resources that are available to you. Take charge of your self-care while being patient and kind with yourself as you learn how to navigate what is right for your own wellbeing.

What Olivia, M.J. and Lauren learned — and their suggestions for peers 

Each of us started to notice our symptoms individually at their onset, and it wasn’t until later that we realized what the symptoms, taken together, meant for our mental health. It was difficult in the moment to recognize the symptoms as we experienced them and became caught up in their debilitating effects on us. 

It took each of us time to seek out and establish the mental health treatment that worked for us. Getting the right diagnosis and finding providers who were the best fit was a process, not a destination. This was just the beginning of the treatment journey for each of us. It can feel frustrating and discouraging at times, but in the end, it can feel satisfying and liberating once you find your own path.

The first steps of exploring treatment can be daunting, but there are many resources and opportunities made available by organizations like DBSA and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Online support groups offer a safe space for people with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorders to share their experiences, discuss coping skills, and give words of encouragement. Find a DBSA support group here.

DBSA has information, resources, and conversations about living as a young person with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety for both youth and parents. Learn more here.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of mood disorders here:

Bipolar disorder