Bipolar Disorder: Are You (or Is Someone You Love) at Risk?

Family history may or may not play a role
bipolar disorder mind mental health connection

Bipolar disorder affects your mood and energy levels — and your relationships, work and family life as a result.

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Do you worry that someone you love may have it? Or, if that person is a family member, that you may be at risk?

“It’s a difficult question to address. Many people with bipolar disorder have a family history of the illness, but the majority do not,” says psychiatrist Amit Anand, MD.

In fact, if your family member has bipolar disorder, you’re more likely to develop anxiety or depression than bipolar disorder, he says.  

No single gene identified

Bipolar disorder has not been traced to any particular gene, but several are candidates.

“People have been looking for genes for quite some time — most likely, multiple genes or a gene network are responsible,” says Dr. Anand.

It’s also possible that the genes for bipolar disorder interact with the environment, and are a combination of nature and nurture, he says. 

Psychological symptoms and risk

Certain types of depression can increase your risk of developing bipolar disorder:

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  • Depression with psychotic symptoms (a break from reality)
  • Postpartum depression (depression after childbirth)
  • Postpartum psychosis (psychotic depression after childbirth)

Experiencing mild or occasional symptoms of mania also increases the odds that bipolar disorder may develop.

But those who concern Dr. Anand most are young people with severe depression.

“Severe depression on its own (unipolar depression) usually develops later in life,” he explains. “Also, young people have not had time to develop a history of mania.

“So when an 18- or 19-year-old becomes very severely depressed, we have to keep bipolar disorder in mind.”

Life charts: Tracking moods

One technique that helps both doctors and patients identify bipolar disorder is life charting.

People with bipolar disorder often have trouble recalling when mood changes occur, explains Dr. Anand.

“Charting moods on a scale each day presents a clearer picture over time,” he says. “This gives the person insight and also helps us make a diagnosis.”

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Life charting was once confined to paper, but can now be done using smartphone apps that rate your moods each day.

Common condition, effective care

Bipolar illness is a common mental health problem that may never require hospitalization, says Dr. Anand.

Most of those affected have only mild or infrequent mania, with no depression. Fewer people develop bipolar II, in which mania is mild but depression is severe. Even fewer people develop bipolar I, in which both depression and mania are severe.

If you think that you or a loved one may have some form of bipolar illness, get a full evaluation from a psychiatrist, Dr. Anand advises.

Medication and talk therapy can optimize your mood and energy levels, minimize your stress, foster good coping skills and make a real difference in your life.

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