Are People Born with Bipolar Disorder?

Are People Born with Bipolar Disorder?

I’m not sure that I was born with bipolar disorder. I might have been. I might have been born with such genetic predisposition that no matter what happened I would have bipolar disorder. Or I might not. I really don’t know and science isn’t in a position to tell me.

But like with most things mental illness, there is a debate about it. Are people born with bipolar disorder?

Heritability of Bipolar Disorder

Of course, I had the genetics for bipolar disorder passed down to me from my father. Having a parent with bipolar disorder increases your chances of getting bipolar dramatically.

  • The chances of bipolar disorder when one parent has bipolar – 30-35%
  • The chances of bipolar disorder where both parents are bipolar – 70-75%
  • When one twin has bipolar, the chances of a fraternal twin having bipolar disorder – 14%
  • When on twin has bipolar, the chances of an identical twin having bipolar disorder – 65% (range: 33-90%)

The average person’s chance of having bipolar disorder is 1%.

(So people who say bipolar disorder isn’t genetic are loopy.)

Are People Born with Bipolar Disorder?

But of all those above people, only about 0.2-0.4% of children have bipolar disorder so most of those people won’t develop bipolar disorder until they are adults (although many show signs in adolescence).

So, as a doctor once explained to me, it’s like marbles in a jar.

Baby with Bipolar Disorder?When you’re born, you’re born with a jar and your risk of mental illness is the marbles inside the jar. Some people are born with very few marbles as they have little genetic risk passed down to them. Then, as life progresses, stressors, which we know are risk factors for mental illness, put more marbles in the jar. You might have had a stressful birth (yes, really a risk factor), you might have been abused or maybe you were severely bullied. In go the marbles to the jar.

For most people, the jar continues to hold the marbles just fine. And better yet, you can even take marbles out of the jar with things like therapy and other coping strategies.

But for some people, the risk factors just keep coming until, well, they lose their marbles.

And losing your marbles is more common in people with high genetic risk as those people start with a whole mess of marbles in their jar to begin with so it doesn’t take much for them to run out of space.

So is it possible for you to have so much risk that you’re born with bipolar disorder? Theoretically yes, in the minority of cases, some people might be just born that way with no help from the environment at all.

Are You Destined for Bipolar Disorder?

But even if you’re not born with bipolar disorder, I suspect some people are so heavily burdened with genetics it’s mostly a forgone conclusion anyway but maybe these people won’t develop symptoms in childhood. After all, none of us makes it into adulthood without suffering some traumas. Life is unpredictable for all.

Does the Cause of Bipolar Disorder Matter?

Well, certainly to researchers it does, and it should, but for any individual I would say no, not so much. Because whether you jar was full of genetics or other risk factors for mental illness, the fact is you’re stuck with bipolar disorder now anyway. The thing to know is that being born with a disorder doesn’t make it any more or less real than one you developed along the way. And saying “no one is born with bipolar disorder” is just another way of trying to suggest that bipolar disorder is a “less-than” illness or trying to blame someone for causing your mental illness.

Well, no one did. You didn’t cause your bipolar disorder and neither did any other one thing. Mental illness is complicated and no one knows where their marbles all come from. The causes don’t have to be genetic, and the causes certainly don’t have to be known, for a disease to be real.

After all, no one knows why someone who smokes all their life escapes cancer while the person with an über-healthy lifestyle dies of cancer at 34.

And bipolar is the same. No one really knows why some of us end up sick and others don’t. But that doesn’t make it less real, less devastating or anyone’s fault.


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.

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