Bipolar Is But A Symptom of Childhood Abuse
It’s time to dispel another myth that ticks me right off. This particular myth is that mental illness is but a symptom of childhood abuse. People who think this claim that simply by getting therapy and dealing with this abuse, the mental illness symptoms will go away. Bipolar – cured! Yay!
This, of course, is absolute nonsense.
Denying Childhood Abuse
Now, the first thing someone on Twitter said to me when I asserted the ridiculousness of this notion was that I was “in denial.” Yeah. Sure. Because I’m sure I don’t know what happened to me in my childhood. Because I’m sure that I don’t know what I have dealt with. Because I wasn’t there in the years of therapy that I’ve had.
Saying that I’m “in denial” is easy, because you can’t prove a negative. It’s impossible to prove that I’m not just “in denial.” I would suggest, however, that it’s impossible to believe that the entire population of people with a mental illness is somehow “in denial.”
Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder
There are many risk factors for bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses but the biggest risk factor for bipolar disorder is likely genetics. I would say it’s far more relevant that my father had bipolar disorder than whatever (not particularly abusive) childhood I might have had. If you have a parent with bipolar disorder you have a 50% chance of having a serious mental illness and identical twin studies demonstrate a 33-90% concordance for bipolar I. Even adopted children raised in households without mentally ill parents show an increased risk of bipolar disorder when their biological parent has bipolar I or a depressive disorder. (Source for statistics.)
Of course, this indicates that there is more than biology at work in bipolar disorder.
And we knew that. It’s true that life traumas can increase your risk of having bipolar disorder but to say that bipolar disorder (or another mental illness) is just a “symptom of childhood abuse” is ludicrous.
Childhood Abuse and Bipolar Disorder
And let’s be clear here: not everyone who has bipolar disorder has experienced childhood abuse. Some have and some haven’t. Bipolar disorder doesn’t discriminate. And suggesting that we all have experienced childhood abuse whether we admit to it or not is ridiculous. The bipolar population is huge and certainly not everyone in it has been abused no matter how you run the numbers.
So let us dispense with this myth once and for all. Bipolar disorder is not a symptom of childhood abuse. Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder, just like epilepsy, and no one would dream of telling epileptics that their seizures are because of childhood abuse and we deserve that same courtesy.
Tracy, N. (2013, November 12). Bipolar Is But A Symptom of Childhood Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2013/11/bipolar-symptom-childhood-abuse
Author: Natasha Tracy
I'm sorry to hear that. Please know that depression does change and if you do feel ashamed of your life, it's probably the depression rearing its ugly head -- it's not really you. I hope you are getting the help you need to feel better.
There are lots of hotlines and resources listed here: https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-referral-resources/
And remember, you don't have to be suicidal to call.
Reach out. You can turn this around.
- Natasha Tracy
"Our results show the importance of childhood trauma, not only as a risk factor for bipolar disorders per se but also for a more severe clinical and dimensional profile of expression of the disorder," author Monica Aas, PhD, from the University of Oslo, in Norway, told Medscape Medical News.
I would infer from this that yes genetics play a huge role, but the severity of a condition can be made a lot worse if you have a messed up childhood. Like most things in life, it isnt nature OR nurture, but a combination of both
Mental illness and its diagnosis is a tricky field. Symptoms and diagnosis are often somewhat of a "chicken and egg" scenario, in which we rarely seem to know whether visible symptoms preceded a diagnosis, or whether what we see now is a result of something like medication side-effects, or are symptoms completely unrelated to a diagnosis. Furthermore, to find what "triggered" a mental illness can be especially hard; people's lives are all different, and for this reason alone, no two people will have had the same life experiences even if they have the same diagnosis of mental illness.
Personally - and this is just personal opinion, so may be wrong or may be right - I feel that we still know very little about the workings of the human brain. Although humans have made big advances in terms of medicine and science, there remain things about which we are uncertain, or about which we do not yet have full information. Mental illness is one of these fields. The "nature versus nurture" debate rages strongly, and to date our society remains unclear as to the definitive causes of many mental illnesses. Does mental illness occur due to genetics, or due to upbringing? What if it is a mixture of the two?
Added to this, diagnostic tools such as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical manual), and ICD (another tool used to diagnose mental illness) are both confusing and contradictory. recently, the DSM in particular has come under heavy criticism because it is so confusing and unhelpful. Both manuals list mental illnesses under various headings (i.e. the diagnosis, or name of the illness), and then list symptoms, of which a patient must have a certain number to classify as "having the illness". This might seem all well and good, but there is a HUGE problem. If, as I have done, you actually read these manuals, and work with them in a professional capacity, then you will come to see that symptoms of one illness can exactly mirror those of another. Put simply, there is a LOT of overlap of symptoms from one mental illness to another. Because no two patients are alike in respect both of their overall presentation, and past life history, this confusing symptom overlap in the diagnostic manuals makes them hard to use. It also makes definitive diagnosis near impossible. Instead, what so often occurs within Mental Health Services is that a patient gets labelled with a diagnosis dependent upon what illness the medical professional who they consult with thinks best fits their symptoms. This means that patients who, over the course of time, see more than one medical professional may end up with varying diagnoses. To exemplify (hypothetical case used)...
Joe Bloggs goes to his G.P. and explains that he has been feeling "jittery", stressed and has been worrying a lot recently. The G.P. talks to Joe about his symptoms, and Joe states that they are mainly panic, worrying a lot, inability to relax, inability to sleep, and feeling stressed. The G.P. believes that Joe Bloggs has an ANXIETY DISORDER.
Later, Joe is referred to a Psychiatrist, who talks in more detail with Joe about the nature of the symptoms, and about their duration. Joe Bloggs states that the symptoms have persisted for a few months now, adding that he feels very restless at times, and cannot stop worrying that something bad is going to happen. Joe explains to the Psychiatrist that he went through a really bad time a few months back, and that since then, he has been afraid that something is out to hurt him. He has a terrible fear of injury or illness. The Psychiatrist agrees that Joe may have an ANXIETY DISORDER, but equally feels that Joe is likely to suffer from an OBSESSIONAL DISORDER.
Finally, Joe goes to have therapy from a Counsellor. The Counsellor is easy to talk to and Joe opens up fully about the bad time he went through. He tells the Counsellor that five months ago, he was driving home from work when he fell asleep, and narrowly missed crashing his car into a lamp post. Joe explains to the Counsellor that he did not know he had fallen asleep at the wheel until he felt his car mount the pavement, and he was jolted awake to find he had narrowly missed a lamp post. Sine this incident, Joe has been afraid to drive, and gets sweaty and shaky whenever he goes near the scene of his accident. He has nightmares about it, especially because the whole incident was really humiliating as the Police had to be involved. The Counsellor, after considering Joe's words, feels he qualifies for a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The above shows just how easy it may be for three different medical professionals to give three different diagnoses of mental illness to the same person, simply because they interpret symptoms differently, or because the patient tells them slightly different things. We should note that when a person attends numerous medical appointments, they do not always say exactly the same thing each time, because they may forget some information, or else recall new information. Even when medical professionals have a patient's notes, they may still reach different conclusions as to diagnosis, due to individual interpretation and difference of opinion. In cases where there may be symptom overlap between different mental illnesses, different professionals may attribute symptoms to different causes.
For example (taken from the DSM 5)...
* Symptoms of DEPRESSION can include insomnia, irritability, restlessness, feeling worthless, inability to enjoy usual activities, fatigue, decreased energy, feeling pessimistic or hopeless, difficulty concentrating, persistently feeling sad.
* Symptoms of ANXIETY can include restlessness, a feeling of dread, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, irritability, worry.
So, if a person sees a Doctor because they have symptoms of insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, feeling dread, feeling worthless... are they depressed, anxious, or both? WHAT is the correct diagnosis (if any)?
The above are very simplified examples, but I have met with numerous mental health patients who have had, over the course of time, innumerable changes of diagnosis because each new medical professional they saw felt differently about symptoms and diagnosis. There are many mental illnesses in the DSM and ICD that have symptoms which overlap. People with Bi Polar, for instance, can be misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia (and vice-versa) because of symptom similarities. People with Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive Disorders and Post Traumatic Stress may easily be confused because of symptom overlap between the various illnesses. The longer a person is treated by Mental Health Services, the greater the likelihood that variation in diagnosis may occur. This is partly because the longer they are treated, the more changes of medic they may have; partly because medication itself can mask, or alter, visible symptoms making it appear that a previous diagnosis was incorrect and that a new one is warranted.
With all the above problems, then it makes sense to me that people should stay clear of jumping to any conclusions when it comes to mental illness. This applies equally when it comes to deciding what may cause an illness. Added to this is the fact that ALL humans are different, so no two people who have a mental illness will have lived the same lives. This makes it particularly hard to pinpoint exact causes, because everyone's experience will be different.
For the above reasons, I say that it is utterly wrong to suggest that Bi Polar definitely IS caused by child abuse; it is equally wrong to say that it definitely IS NOT. The truth is closer to a murky middle-ground. SOME people who have Bi Polar may have it due to genetics, OTHERS due to upbringing, and yet OTHERS due to a mix of both. Please note that I say MAY have it due to... because NOBODY can say for certain. Even when people do have Bi Polar, their lives are still all very different - so no two people with Bi Polar could claim to have had exactly the same circumstances, thus making it hard to say just what circumstances lead to having Bi Polar. Research into causes is ongoing, and for every piece of research that cites nature (i.e. biology and genetics) as a cause, there is another that cites nurture (i.e. upbringing).
What complicates the above "nature versus nurture" debate is just what I have pointed out to you as the problems with diagnosing mental illness. Because the DSM and ICD are so confusing due to symptom overlap, the sad fact is that we can NEVER know for certain whether any person's diagnosis is accurate, anyway. At the end of the day, it is as much about guesswork, supposition and medical opinion, as it is about definitive facts - perhaps more so! If one Doctor can hear about a person's symptoms and say "Schizophrenia", but another hear the same symptoms and say "Bi Polar", then just how accurate and reliable is this whole diagnosis thing, anyway? And... if it's NOT reliable, then just where does that leave all THIS debate about causes? Erm... Back at proverbial "square one"!
My personal opinion concurs pretty much with that of Rachel (above) who says that it is ridiculous to insist that each and every person experiences the exact same causality. Well said Rachel! Remember, ALL people are different and ALL people's lives are different. Perhaps the reality is that some people experience what appear to us to be mental illnesses due to some genetic dysfunction that affects how the brain develops. Others may have experienced damage to the brain - perhaps due to birth difficulties (difficult delivery causing oxygen restriction, or similar), or due to head trauma later in life - that mimics mental illness. Yet others may have symptoms of what seems to be mental illness as a result of protracted alcohol or drug misuse. Some may have symptoms akin to mental illness that result from emotional damage caused by child abuse, bullying, domestic violence or some other equally damaging treatment at the hands of other people. Yet others may have symptoms appearing like mental illness that result from witnessing traumatic occurrences like a car crash, or bereavement, or being caught in a natural disaster. Some may have a combination of several of these factors. It may even be that the diagnosis of mental illness that takes place at present, using things like the DSM and ICD, turns out to be flawed and inaccurate - and that we have to find a new way of more accurately diagnosing and defining mental illnesses. Perhaps our current view of mental illness will turn out to be flawed, and we may in the future have to find new ways of looking at symptoms, and new ways of redefining what is going on for people with such symptoms? Maybe a more person-centred approach, which actually does start to focus upon INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES, as opposed to GENERIC LABELS AND DIAGNOSES, is the way forward? Who can yet say?
Topics like mental illness are difficult and fraught with problems, in that they are not necessarily so easy to define. Unlike many physical illnesses and injuries, we cannot easily SEE mental illness, or its cause(s). Thus, there is no simple way to reach a definitive consensus as to what mental illness actually looks like - what it represents, what it is, what it does, and what causes it. Each and every one of us may well have a different view, and there is little to say if our views are wrong or right. Unlike a stubbed toe - which can be seen, and the cause of which is known - mental illness cannot be simply and clearly defined. Which is perhaps why posts like these spark such intense debate? Food for thought!
The psychiatric profession has no effective psychiatric treatment for non-trauma-based psychiatric disorders. Your general physician can prescribe the ineffective garbage drugs for you, then you take them and your lofe improves by 12.7% or so... And then during therapy, your therapist's job is to try to find something to treat with councelling.. If you have no underlying trauma, the councelling will boil down to this: "Tough luck, dude. Learn to deal." That is all they can offer if you have no trauma. Chems and harsh truths.
Took me 35 years to find out I'd been abused. I hadanswered flat out no to the question for years when asked in therapy. Came to the conclusion myself after not having any therapy for about a decade. Makes perfect sense that they keep probing you about it.. Because therapists kinda know that people have been abused, because abused people tell stories that seem normal to them (my mom got really angry during the weekends. Turns out, moms threatening their kids with child protective services, constant guilting, constant belittlement of opposing opinions, and aura of lies and inconstencies... You get so unsure of things that you're essentially brainwashed... This happens A LOT, and I can 100% guarantee that a lot of commenters who claim not to have been abused have.. Like Hannity on fox recently, claiming that a fist to the face and belt lashings given to him by his father wasn't abuse.
I thought the same. A year ago I wuld have laughed at the idea of having been abused.
Do yourselves a favor, even if you're not arund a narcissist (that you know of), spend some time reading about them. They can have an absolutely incredibly strong influence on emotional people like those with mood disorders. Always be on the lookout for these monsters. They will leech you dry.
What really bothers me though is how so many people end up with such a variety of diagnoses based on a set number of symptoms. For instance I've noticed that borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder share a lot of the same symptoms . Stress and anxiety seem to fuel these mental health problems. Even the medications used to treat them seem to have some overlap. What I also worry about is how many pdocs screw around with peoples brain chemistry treating them like a guinea pig while they try out a bunch of very potent mind altering drugs on them before they find a cocktail of that works. Are they really working for the patient or the damn drug companies. I was given haldol in the hospital as an involuntary patient once and it nearly killed me because I had a bad reaction to it, Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome. Any way you cut it that can't be healthy especially when they do it to very young children whose brains are still developing. Even 'food', like too much sugar can mimic the highs and lows of bipolar disorder.
Many doctors and scientist will readily admit that they don't know exactly how some medications work or what exactly causes some brain disorders. If they don't know exactly what causes it how can they truly know what will work to cure it or at least reduce the symptons. Yes I know that bipolars should not take antidepressants, but beyond that I mean... i.e., I can't tolerate Lithium even at low does but I can Lamictal, etc
I am not saying that trauma doesn't increase chances of mental illness but i do believe there are genetics involved as well.
I think my biological father might have had bipolar because he was an alcoholic, but my mother remarried a wonderful man and my childhood was overall really good.
I was bullied at school but I do not think that 'caused' my bipolar as one therapist tried to force his idea on me.
Natasha, thank you for writing this post. You have a gift for weaving facts and feelings together.
It apparently happens in the medical field as well. Read an interesting article about how this woman was given a stark cancer prognosis by a doctor who apparently didn't like her (she discovered this after getting copies of her medical records). It was a way of simply dismissing her. I think this happens in the psych field as well - probably more so.
I guess the only way you can avoid that is to arm yourself with information, but that takes some time.
Anyway, the medication helped me, so I my stance on that has changed.
At the same time, I personally am pretty screwed up psychologically as well as neurologically (and the definition of "abuse" has been stretched by some therapists to account for the psychological part). There's a real chicken and egg dilemma there, as to what "caused" what--and treatment that addresses only one domain isn't very helpful for me. So I wouldn't discount all psychodynamic therapy; it's good for some of us bipolar folks, just not by itself.
What pains me about the whole psych field is the number of diagnosis that fly around. It should not be issued so callously. I think some therapists aren't very good listeners. They are good at issuing judgements, though, which I think does more harm than good. There are some good ones ones out there though, and I don't want to deter anyone from seeking therapy based on my experience and observations. But I do think people should be cautious of therapists who are like this.
Oh, and I was abused as a child into adult-hood and have bipolar disorder. What I heard from various psychologists and pdocs is that the physical abuse may have made me medication- and treatment-resistant; and that the abuse has made some of my bipolar symptoms worse. I mean, I think abuse makes the anxiety worse. My most trusted pdoc, however, after hearing some of the stuff my mother did to me, said that my mother was without a doubt mentally ill. The rest of my mother's family insists that the bipolar came to me from my biological father; while HIS family insists he had PTSD from his experiences in World War II, and NOT bipolar disorder. Well, whatever, abuse has a toxic effect, both mentally and physically, and with two mentally ill parents, I was assured of having some sort of mental illness, at least I believe that.
In the end, I realized that some people are just so trauma obssessed. She wasn't the only therapist who thought this way and for years I would simply end a therapeutic relationship if they insisted on pursuing it further. At least I checked out that possibility so I have no regrets. At least now I can simply dismiss this theory with a simple, "bullsh*t!" and move on.
But this is not the same things as saying the bipolar is only a product of childhood abuse. Such people are quite ignorant of the bipolar monster. Like the Balrog of Moria, it lies in the deep places of the soul. Do not dare disturb it. "This foe is beyond any of you" are apt words. It was there since the beginning of time. It didn't just appear when Pippin woke it up.
Just to clarify: you actually have a 50% chance of having a serious mental illness (not necessarily bipolar). :) That probably doesn't help but I just wanted to clarify.