My Early Teenage Signs

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18 April 2011 (updated 17 May 20)

The first signs of depression or bipolar disorder generally show up in the teenage years - around 15 to 18 years old - though younger and older is possible.

The difficulty is usually recognising there is a problem.

After all, which parent thinks "My son/daughter has been acting moody lately and their grades have been slipping and OMG, they must be bipolar."

What teenager thinks so?

Unless there is a complete meltdown, parents are unlikely to notice that things are starting to go seriously wrong with their teenager. They'll notice things are different about their child, but they may not realise how bad / difficult things are really getting.

In fact, the teenager who is having the mood swings may not realise how out of normal their actions have become, and they may not understand that it's time to get help, or they may be nervous or ashamed to ask for help.

Even the teenager's friends, who'll usually see the symptoms, may not recognise that it's time for their friend to get help.

Making things more confusing, in the early mild stages, manic depressive signs can look very much like normal teenage issues.

I first noticed my mood swings somewhere between age 15 - 17, though I did not understand what they were at the time. But since there WERE signs before that, I'll put them in chronological order.

NB: I followed the UK educational system, so some references are specific to that. But I've also added ages as well.

IMPORTANT - If you are a teenager and see the patterns below in yourself, or if you are a parent and see these patterns in your teen, it may worthwhile to visit a doctor and describe what is happening.


I Complained of Vision and Hearing Problems since I was about 11

From about age 11 onward (when I started high school, Form 1), I would complain that I could not see the blackboard properly or hear the teacher properly. In fact I complained en0ugh that my parents got me tested multiple times over a five year period by both eye and ear doctors. All the reports were that my vision and hearing were perfectly normal.

And yet I still found difficulties in school. I was eventually placed in the front row of the class as the solution. That seemed to solve the problem - I could see and hear the teacher properly.

I have always wondered about this and my best theory is not that I couldn't hear (obviously I could), but that the activities by other students in the classroom would pose a distraction or interference that made it difficult for me to concentrate on what the teacher said. In the front row, I couldn't see or hear the the other students, so I was free to focus on the teacher.

It's as if I was getting the correct input though my ears and eyes, but my brain was incapable of filtering out the critical information from the rest of the data it was also picking up. Almost like there was failure to properly process the input from my senses.

By the same token, I began to dislike loud noisy places. I just felt overwhelmed by the amount of sensory data - noise, movement, emotions, sights, all coming at me at once. So I tended to drift off to quieter places, earning the reputation of "He likes to be by himself".

That wasn't what was happening. I was just simply trying not to be overwhelmed.


I had periods when I wanted to be Alone

Mind you, this never felt like a problem. When you come from a busy involved noisy family like mine, quiet time is a luxury to be treasured. I only consider this as a sign because it was often mentioned by my mother or aunts - "Oh, J. likes to have quiet time to himself."

Parents, if you realise you have started to use this phrase fairly often, please consider it a red flag that something might be wrong with your teenager, and it's time to have a chat with them.

In retrospect, I was either having mild depression episodes, or I just wanted to get away from the noise / energy / activity of other people to protect the stability of my moods. But during these times I never felt depressed or down. These were times I would just sit in the back garden or go for a walk by the river and come back feeling recharged. And that sounded pretty normal to me.

I'm not sure at what age I started to want to be alone, but by about 15 I was certainly doing it.


Learning New Things in Class got a lot Harder

Ok. I was one of the bright guys who used to be in the top 5 of all the academic classes (though I sucked at music, and I wasn't an athlete).

That meant that I would effortlessly do very well at classes. I would have to put in the time to read the material and do the homework, but once I did that, I understood it. Schoolwork might have been time consuming, but it never felt hard.

But a few months past my 16th birthday, around October of my final year at high school - I found myself struggling to understand the work in my physics and chemistry classes. It would take me a long time to understand the concepts, and if I went back to the topic a week later, I'd realise I had forgotten what I had learned and I would have to struggle to understand it all over again.

I also had a very hard time concentrating and I was easily distracted. I would read a little bit, then think about some other topic, or daydream, or get something to eat, or...something. It was hard to sit down and focus on what I should be paying attention to.

Subjects which required me to memorise information were excruciatingly difficult. Nothing stuck - by the next day either I would not remember the information or I would mix up formulae or dates or names. In my case it was organic chemistry, but I've had problems with biology, and history, and English literature as well.

As a side note, the distraction and the inability to remember info was also a major major problem at University. It took me forever to read and comprehend subject matter for courses. See also My University Years.

At the time, I just thought the studies were getting harder because, you know, they tend to do that as you move through high school. It bothered me that I was having difficulties, but I responded by simply putting in more time and effort (hey, I was a good student). I do know that the topics I covered in the final six months in high school, I don't know as well as work I did earlier.

Perhaps of most concern, the problems I had with studies were never visible to others. I had so much momentum from the previous six years studying, it carried though and I did well in my final year exams. And as a result, I never really paid attention to the study problems I experienced, which was a mistake because it became a disaster when I entered University.


Grades Dropping for No Reason

I was lucky to have graduated high school with good grades. But that was luck in timing - my difficulties in studying happened just as I was getting ready to leave high school.

But it's easy to imagine what would have happened if my concentration difficulties had started two years earlier, or if I had another year in high school before I graduated. My grades would have plunged.

I would have brought home exam results that went from A's and B's to C's and fails. And if my parents asked me what was wrong, I wouldn't have been able to answer. After all, I was studying as hard as I used to, or even harder, and I was conscientious about doing my work in school and at home. It's just that nothing seemed to be working - I wasn't getting through. I didn't have a reasonable explanation and I couldn't understand what was going on.

I would probably have answered that the work got harder, or I was having difficulty concentrating. But I can see from the parent's side that a decent response would be "well, try harder." Except I was trying as hard as I could!

For parents / teachers, I'd like to recommend that if your teen's grades are dropping to definitely pay attention. There are lots of reasons for grades to drop (everything from boring teacher, to not challenged by the work, to being bullied, or difficulties with home life, or sexual harassment, or peer pressure, or any number of issues), but if these reasons are ruled out, consider getting the teen an evaluation for mood swings / bipolar disorder. Especially if the teen can't give a reasonable explanation for what is happening.

If you happen to be the person whose grades are dropping, and there is no obvious explanation other than "everything is harder now," and you are showing some of the other signs listed here, ask your parents to carry you to a doctor. Insist if they don't take you seriously.


Memory in School Got Worse

I touched on the difficulty in remembering stuff when I was studying - I would have an exceedingly difficult time remembering facts and figures. If there wasn't a pattern to the facts and figures, I probably wouldn't remember them correctly.

Because patterns were subject specific, it turns out that those with strong patterns - like math and physics - I'd be good at. Those with no clear pattern - like history - I'd be spectacularly bad at. While I could remember the narrative of what happened, I couldn't get the dates or names right (Did Christopher Columbus reach the Americas in 1492, 1498 or 1342? Did he land at San Salvador or St. Lucia?).

Subjects with a mixture of patterns and facts - like Chemistry and Geography - I could do well in, but I would have to sweat to learn the stuff - hours and hours of reading and rereading the same stuff just to memorise it. And I could still get it wrong in an exam.

Languages like Spanish were a disaster. I couldn't reliably remember the nouns or verbs, even if I understood the grammar. Try having a discussion when you can't remember the word you need.

Worse, there was (and still is) a second problem. I could hear what you said, but I couldn't translate / parse your statement fast enough in real time. So I might be able to talk with you, but I wouldn't be able to understand what you said. This is a variation of the Number 1 issue above - the inability to process information in real time.

This inability to understand what other people say happens to me in English too, if the area is noisy enough or the person is talking fast. You'd be surprised how often even now I guess what people are saying to me.

For a number of subjects, I had a workaround at exam time to compensate for memory problems. In Math and Physics exams for example, I'd memorise formulae twenty minutes before the exam, and as the exam started, I'd spend the first 5-10 minute writing down the formulae I just memorised. I did a similar thing in English Literature (and it's hilarious how badly I could mangle the names in Shakespeare plays).

So obviously I knew I had memory problems, but I didn't really do much more than adapt to it. I never thought about it as a real problem that needed professional attention. In retrospect, I would / should have told someone about it and asked to see a doctor.


Memory in Social Situations Got Worse

Not just worse. Hilariously, awfully worse.

I am famous for repeatedly getting times and dates and locations wrong - Did we say we'd meet at 4 pm or 5 pm, or was the movie outing this weekend or next weekend?

And it didn't just happen once or twice. It happened so frequently that my friends got into the habit of getting a second confirmation from other people if I mentioned dates and times.

One of my favourite anecdotes was at a movie theatre where I lean to a friend and say "Why are they showing a trailer to the movie we are going to see?" And my friend says, "That's not the movie." And I go "What did we come to see?" And my friend looks at me really strangely and says "You invited us to the movies."

This is normal for me, by the way.

I also had / have a hard time remembering the names of people that I met. But lots of people of people do this so I didn't consider it abnormal at the time.

It got worse as time went by. By my mid twenties, I wouldn't just forget names, I would forget that I met them at all.

And amazingly, I can't find people in crowds. I can't pattern match a face in a sea of constantly shifting patterns of moving faces and bodies. There's too much distraction.

Usually I just wander around and hope that my friends find me.

Notice the similarity of not claiming to see or hear properly, and not being able to find people in a crowd, or not being able to recognise faces. (notice the similarity to not recognising faces).

Did I consider any of the above memory issues a problem. Not really - I simply gravitated to subjects that were easy for me - so I studied the hard sciences rather than the social sciences or languages. Lots of my friends were doing this too, so it didn't feel odd at the time - I'm adding explanations years after. I was terrible at languages because of memory issues, but everyone else in my family were also terrible at languages, and it felt more like keeping up a tradition rather than being a problem.


I started having trouble being in Big Groups of People

This probably should have been a tipoff that something was wrong. I had a huge family - 19 aunts and uncles and over sixty cousins. And when I was young we were all close - so much so that I still joke that it took me until age 14 to realise that you could have a party and invite people who were not family. And on top of all that we were a loud family. If there was something that I learned early in my life was how to get along with large amounts of loud friendly people all competing for my attention.

However somewhere around age 15/16, I started finding that I couldn't cope with large groups any more - whether they were family or friends. They were too loud, too distracting, to energetic. I couldn't function in them any longer. More specifically...

(a) I found that I would pick up the energy of the group and it would make me hyperactive. So if everyone was noisy or excited, I'd get louder and more boisterous and hyperactive (and irritating to other people). I wouldn't be able to control becoming hyperactive either - to calm down, I'd have to leave them and go somewhere quiet for a while. And if I came back into the group I'd become hyperactive again.

(b) Unlike in the past, I wouldn't be able to keep several conversation going simultaneously (something one learned in our family early on). Instead, I'd start getting confused as to what conversation I was following. This may not be a symptom in its own right as much as a combination of memory issues and being hyperactive and easily distracted.

As a result, being part of a loud group would become hard / painful / irritating instead of fun and enjoyable. I started avoiding being parts of large groups of friends and family and started gravitating to quieter one on one conversations or just staying away from crowds of people. Being in a car with a bunch of excitable friends and loud music was also hard to cope with - I remember one time when we were going to the beach and I told the others in the car "You've got to calm down so I can can calm down."

Here's the thing. Nothing I mentioned above would appear to be a problem - they could all be taken as part of normal growing up, or be the kinds of things a teenager might experience. None of it sounds like mood swings or being bipolar - it's only with hindsight I recognise them as signs.

These are the signs that I first showed. Other signs showed up when I went to university - around 18/19 but I supposed these could show up earlier in some people. I'll talk about those in my next post.

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First published 18 Apr 2011. Updated 13 Jun 2020.

To incorporate into story still

6 Dec 2016Stuff not on site. As far as I can remember, my early signs started in St. Mary's. Grades were fine though from Form 1 to Lower 6. Yeah, I used to bite the person sitting next to me from Form 1 to Form 4, so well, there is that. It wasn't just biting, by the way. Also poking. I couldn't stop myself from doing it, EVEN THOUGH I knew it was inappropriate. Throughout CIC I always found that I wasn't as popular as I should be (this is not an ego thing), as if there was some problem that made it difficult for me to make friends properly. In Form 5 / Lower 6, at the age of 14 or 15 I would complain that I was picking the feel of the group I was liming with, so if they were excited I would get excited as well and I wouldn't be able to control my feelings - I would need to leave the group to calm down or ask them to stop being excitable so I could calm down. The inability to focus on school work started in Upper Six when I was early 16. I couldn't understand what the teacher said or what I read in books and I couldn't memorise work at all. It took A LOT of hard work to get the stuff done, and even then it was just decent to pretty good (as opposed to really good). So studying and class grades take a nose dive. I was at MIT from early 17 to turning 21. It was a nightmare all through - grades were terrible because I couldn't concentrate, etc. I call my 20th year my Black Year. Your question is not precise enough. I don't have enough information. I did keep some things in order. But my school notes were frequently messy. Overall, I tended to the neat and orderly side, but I didn't consider it a coping mechanism then - it was just something I was. Later on, in my mid twenties forward, I learned to keep my personal things (keys, wallet, geography notes, etc) in specific places, because if I misplaced them, I would never be able to find them - the act of looking is not possible if one is manic or depressed. If you are manic, you throw up your hands in disgust and abandon the search or use the spare keys because you are supposed to be doing something else NOW and searching is wasting time! If you are depressed, you just abandon the search because, you know, depression. U6: 16-17L6: 15-165: 14-154: 13-142: 12-131: 11-12

I carry some of this with me even now. I still can't study or read or write with music or the television in the background (my house tends to be quiet). I have difficulty following conversations in noisy areas like a pub although no one else seems to have problems.