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Supporting Children with Medical
and Mental Health Needs at School


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Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme changes in mood, with alternating periods of extreme happiness (mania) and extreme sadness (depression).

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Causes of bipolar disorder

  • Bipolar disorder may have a genetic link, it seems to run in families.
  • There may be a physical cause related to brain systems that control mood.
  • Stress can trigger an episode.
  • Bipolar disorder generally starts between the ages of 15 to 19.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

  • Symptoms fall under two categories, mania and depression.
  • Manic symptoms include: not sleeping, being over active, talking very quickly, jumping from one idea to another, feeling more important than usual and being unaware of how unwell they are.
  • Depressive symptoms include, negative thoughts, being unable to make decisions, loss of confidence, agitation and restlessness and being unable to concentrate.
  • Sufferers can also have psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and feelings of exaggerated self-worth, or no self-worth.

Treatment of bipolar disorder

  • Medication is used to treat manic and depressive symptoms. The most common medications are anti-depressants and lithium. Anti -psychotic medication is used for treating manic episodes.
  • Talking therapies such as CBT may also be prescribed for helping with manic and depressive moods.
  • Psycho - education for the student and their family is important to help them understand the condition and recognise symptoms, so that treatment can be sought quickly.

Supporting students with bipolar disorder

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Returning to school

  • If students are admitted to a specialist unit or hospital following an acute episode then liaise with the family and the hospital teaching team to plan for their return to school.
  • Attend a discharge planning meeting or arrange a meeting at school, with input from the medical team, to plan the student’s return to school.
  • Complete an individual healthcare plan.
  • Discuss medication side effects.
  • Discuss with the student what they want staff and fellow students to know about their absence and condition.
  • Ensure the SENCO and Form Tutor understands what bipolar disorder is and how it might affect the student. Reliable and accurate information is vital.

Managing school work

  • For some students the onset of bipolar disorder may change what they are able to achieve academically. This may be distressing for the student and family.
  • Discuss the option of deferment of exams if the student falls ill during years 11 and 13.
  • Help the student with organisational skills, as well as catching up with academic work.
  • Be flexible about homework and deadlines during periods when a student may not be sleeping well or able to concentrate.
  • If possible record or provide lesson notes for when a student may have difficulty concentrating in lessons.
  • Supportively discuss course options if it becomes clear the student is not managing.

Ongoing Support

  • Help the student manage their workload to help reduce a build-up of stress.
  • Check in regularly and allow the student time to discuss their concerns.
  • Consider allocating a learning mentor after discussing support needs with the student and family.
  • Contact parents/carers if a change in behaviour is observed, for example, appearing low in mood or elated.
  • Allow a student to start school a little later if they are having trouble sleeping.
  • Agree a plan for when a student feels agitated and unsettled. This might be access to an agreed room with a supportive staff member.
  • Arrange access to drinking water and use of toilet.

More Information

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HOPE (Hospital Organisation of Pedagogues in Europe)