In recent years, there has been a startling rise in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder or manic depression. This is even more startling when the patient learns that there is no cure for bipolar disorder and, since medical science does not yet know the cause, no way to have prevented it. But people cannot be accurately diagnosed until they’ve had a couple of episodes, which may not occur until a person is in his or her 40s.
Although we do not know the exact cause of bipolar disorder, one thing is crystal clear – it runs in families. Bipolar disorder does seem to be a product of mostly nature and just a little bit of nurture.
Having a bipolar ancestor does not guarantee that you will develop manic depression. But it does certainly up your odds. If one of your parents has been diagnosed, then you have about a 20% chance of having it, too. But if both your parents have it, then your chance escalates to 50 – 70%. These numbers are for Bipolar Type I and are unknown for the other types of bipolar disorder.
There is currently work in Cardiff University in Wales in trying to track down a “bipolar gene”. DNA samples and medical histories from all over the world are being taken from manic depressives. Even just in interviewing these volunteers, they reveal that somewhere in their ancestry was a relative that was “a little peculiar in the head”. This relative often had a chemical dependency or committed suicide.
Because of the stigma of any mental illness, it has only been in recent years that manic depressives have been able to get help. So there is a very good chance that thousands of bipolar patients went through their lives never getting a proper diagnosis or proper help.
If there is a bipolar gene that makes a person more predisposed to attacks than another person, it sure bides its time before making itself known. It seems to wait until a person is under great emotional or physical stress before manifesting. These events could include a job loss, giving birth or going off to university.
This has lead some to believe that nurture or circumstance may play more of a factor than genes in setting a manic-depressive cycle off. But this doesn’t take into account the manic depressives who do manage to cope with incredibly bad circumstances, only to succumb years later when they seem to be doing okay.
If bipolar disorder was caused mostly by circumstance, then rich and famous people should never get this disease. But they do. Many celebrities like actress Carrie Fisher and comic genius Spike Milligan were bipolar. Even children raised in loving, supporting homes can also get bipolar disorder.
“Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive.” (2006)
“Depression and How to Survive It.” Spike Milligan & Anthony Clare (Various Publishers; 1993)
“The Family Intervention Guide to Mental Illness: Recognizing Symptoms and Getting Treatment.” Bodie Morey & Kim T.Mueser, Ph.D. New Harbinger; 2007.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Bipolar Disorder.” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml
BBC News. “Stephen Fry urges help for bipolar gene study.” Feb. 23, 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/8530212.stm