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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

Bipolar is not a symptom of childhood abuse and just because you have bipolar doesn't mean you have been abused. More at Breaking Bipolar blog.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.

(There are a few exceptions to this like dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder which are specifically precipitated on life stressors.)

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.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

26 thoughts on “Bipolar Is But A Symptom of Childhood Abuse”

  1. Seems that my grandmother had BP or borderline PD. My father was emotionally abusive. I have BP II. My life has been very difficult, unsuccessful and unhappy. I don’t take drugs or drink, but am depressed often and am ashamed of my life.

    1. Hi Katie,

      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

  2. Despite this unfortunate sufferer’s angry perspective, which to its credit does address other points of view, but is still largely anecdotal, there scientific literature on this which does present a link between Bi Polar and childhood abuse, albeit largely related to emotional abuse.
    “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


  3. My mother had bipolar disorder as did my brother. I do not. My mother was very abusive as was my brother. Fortunately, I was raised by a wonderful foster family. However, when I had children, one ended up having bipolar disorder. She behaves just like my biomother and biobrother. Sadly, as an adult, she went to a therapist who told her bipolar disorder is caused by child abuse and if she could just recover her missing memories of abuse…..you get the idea. I loved her. But after that, she sunk in to drugs and we have not seen her since. I am devastated that any professional would say such a thing. My daughter was under the care of a physician and a psychiatrist at the time, but none of us knew what the new therapist was telling her until it was too late.

  4. Whenever I read a post like this, I feel an element of concern. Often, such posts are merely the opinion of people who have no formal medical, or social care training whatsoever. Whilst we are all entitled to an opinion, it MUST be accepted that sometimes opinions can be wrong. Also, that opinions can differ; more than one opinion may sometimes be correct.

    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!

    1. It does frustrate me that such opinion blog posts are presented as authoritative especially in this day and age, where truth, data and facts are harder to find than a healthy snack in a convenience store

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