All in the Family? Genetics & Bipolar

Last Updated: 11 Oct 2020
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Bipolar illness starts in the gene pool, but factors such as early trauma, limited social support, and how you cope with stress count, too.

bipolar disorder genetics family trauma stress support

Anthony B., a 55-year-old artist from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, joined the US Navy when he was 17. Two years into his service, his commander sent him to a Navy psychiatrist because of his troubling conduct—explosive anger, fights, and insubordination, plus bouts of depression that led to multiple counts of “absent without leave” (AWOL).

Back during the young recruit’s first week in boot camp, he’d been called in to hear some news from home: His mom had been diagnosed with manic depressive disorder. Now the psychiatrist suggested Anthony was displaying behavioral patterns similar to his mother’s.

That wasn’t something Anthony was ready to hear. He’d enlisted in the first place to escape the cycle of his mother’s unchecked mood swings: abusive outbursts followed by unresponsive days where she couldn’t get out of bed.

“No one knew what my mom suffered from [during my childhood] and she never saw a doctor,” he recalls, adding that apart from her bipolar episodes, his mother had the heart and soul of Mother Teresa.

Anthony spent two decades denying his diagnosis. The results: an “other than honorable” discharge, nine hospitalizations, legal troubles, mandated mental health counseling, and a divorce, all while maintaining a fickle relationship with his meds.

The legacy of mental health struggles passed down to his son from his first marriage, who began having mood symptoms and struggles with substance use in his early 20s, Anthony says.

Eventually, all three generations found their way to wellness. Anthony is settled in a long-term second marriage and works as an iconographer for the Eastern Orthodox Church. He says it took about two years of intensive psychotherapy to finally accept that he could do things differently.

He says his mom had some good years between starting treatment for her bipolar and developing Alzheimer’s disease. And his son, now 27, has reached a positive place and is working in the mental health field.

Finding stability “took my mom’s whole life. It took me maybe half a life. It’s taken my son maybe a quarter of his life,” Anthony says. “So there’s a gradual benefit, but only with self-realization.”


Experts class bipolar as highly heritable, meaning it tends to run in families. Having a parent or other relative with bipolar greatly raises your risk for also developing the condition. In fact, the presence of any mental health disorder in your gene pool is a risk factor.

“Bipolar disorder is about 85 percent pure genetics,” says Stephen Strakowski, MD, vice dean of research and associate vice president of Regional Mental Health at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s actually unusual to have someone with bipolar disorder who has no family history of any psychiatric conditions.” [End of Excerpt]

Printed as “All in the Family?” Fall 2020

About the author
Jennifer Nelson, a freelancer from Jacksonville, Florida, has written for AARP, PBS NextAvenue, WebMD, esperanza magazine, and other outlets.
1 Comment
  1. I think you nailed it. I can identify with most all in this article Thank you.

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