Bipolar Disorder: It’s Not My Family’s Fault

For far too long, families of individuals with bipolar disorder have been stereotyped.  It is an outdated and unhelpful perception.

I remember when I was in college, my minor was in psychology. Abnormal Psychology was a required course in 1991. The theories as to what caused various psychiatric conditions were rife with blame toward the families of origin, and mothers, in particular, were thought to be at fault. Moms really took a beating. Schizophrenia was caused by overbearing mothers. With eating disorders, controlling mothers were to blame. OCD was caused by neurotic mothers. Bipolar Disorder, well, you guessed it, look for a problem mom. Every condition would be blamed on the “dysfunctional families,” especially moms, and no one ever seemed to question it.

We have come a long way scientifically in terms of understanding the origins of bipolar disorder. While the exact cause is still under investigation, science is getting ever-so-close to being able to provide blood tests that will be able to identify the genetic biomarkers involved in the formation of bipolar disorder. But this alone does not tell the whole story. Indeed, there are many theories that suggest that genetic predisposition may just be part of the picture and that life experiences combine with genetics to influence the course of bipolar disorder. In other words, there is perhaps no single factor that is to blame.

There is no question that there are people reading this article right now who did not have an ideal childhood or had families with challenges that contributed to the expression and/or the development of their condition. Please know that I am fully aware that this can be a factor and would never be so insensitive as to argue that this was not the case or to try to downplay that reality.

To those parents and loved ones, including mine, who have done everything they can to help their loved one who has bipolar disorder, a sincere and heartfelt thank you.

What concerns me is that all too often it is simply assumed that if one has bipolar disorder, they had a horrible upbringing. It has become a stereotype that often is not true. And I believe that, like all stereotypes, that assumption can impede progress. It’s hard enough for family members who are trying to get help for their loved ones to obtain it. Add to that the fact that they may be stereotyped or treated poorly under the assumption that if they have a loved one with the condition, they therefore must be a “hot mess” of a parent. It can discourage people from reaching out for the help that is so badly needed. Besides, there is nothing worse than reaching out for help and being insulted or misunderstood by the very persons who are supposed to make things better.

I can only speak for myself. My parents were wonderful. Not only did they have nothing to do with my condition, they had everything to do with my surviving it. When I was a teen, there were not many options for treatment in our small town. For years my parents drove two hours round trip, twice a week during rush hour traffic, to a town where there were treatment options for me. Without complaint I might add. My family has always been supportive of me. My father was a great dad, and my mother I believe absolutely to be a saint. Seriously. She is just that wonderful.

I believe it is important to know how familial upbringing can contribute to our condition. I believe it is important to be truly honest and understand these factors in order to heal. But I also believe that parents who have helped their children and been nothing but good parents to their children with bipolar disorder must be acknowledged as well.

To the helping professionals, first, thank you for your help. It is important to remember that before we make assumptions about parents, we should get to know them. Understand the facts and learn the whole story. If there are areas that need to be addressed, timing and sensitivity are everything. Patience and a humble attitude are of utmost importance.

To those parents and loved ones, including mine, who have done everything they can to help their loved one who has bipolar disorder, a sincere and heartfelt thank you. You are worth your weight in gold. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

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