The WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that a quarter of all adults report having been physically abused as a child, with childhood sexual abuse reported by 1 in 5 women and 1 in 13 men.
Every parent wants to protect their child from abuse but there is more we as parents with bipolar disorder need to know; for one simple reason: knowing and treating the early symptoms of bipolar disorder can improve your child’s outcome with the disease.
If my child develops bipolar disorder, stopping childhood trauma could reduce the severity of the illness. Preventing bipolar disorder by preventing childhood trauma is only a theory at this time.
There is evidence that childhood trauma is a risk factor for bipolar disorder and increases the severity of the disease. In one research it has been found that childhood trauma could be a focus of early intervention strategies and ways to potentially prevent these children from developing bipolar disorder, but this is still only theory – more research is needed. Reducing all risk factors, trauma included, for bipolar disorder can reduce the risk of developing it. The severity of bipolar disorder should be reduced by eliminating risk factors.
Risk factors for bipolar disorder
There are many possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most researchers agree there is no single cause of bipolar disorder. There are a number of factors which can contribute to increased risk of the illness. Based on sound evidence, childhood trauma was added as a risk factor.
- Brain structure and functioning. Studies show how the brains of people with bipolar disorder differ from the brains of healthy people or people with other mental illnesses. Understanding these differences with information from genetic studies helps scientist better understand bipolar disorder and predict which types of treatment will be the most effective.
- Genetics. Some research suggests that certain genes are more likely to cause bipolar disorder. However, studies of identical twins with the same genes showed that sometimes one twin would develop bipolar disorder and the other wouldn’t. This indicates there are other genes which could be causing the illness.
- Family history. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Children with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder are much more likely to develop the illness, compared with children who do not have a family history of the disorder. However, it is important to note that most people with a family history of bipolar disorder do not develop the illness.
- Childhood trauma. This includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and is a risk factor in bipolar disorder. The scars of childhood abuse and neglect affect adults’ brains for decades to come – including their ability to process and act on information both quickly and accurately, new research suggests.
The role of childhood trauma in bipolar disorder
No one is spared from some kind of trauma. Childhood trauma can trigger your bipolar disorder causing mania, or worsening depression. Childhood trauma is a risk factor of bipolar disorder. It has also been known to increase the severe symptoms of bipolar disorder.
I am a child sexual abuse survivor. In my experience, flashbacks have triggered mania several times. This has improved the more I have had treatment such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). It is impossible to guard yourself against all stress and trauma. Using therapies as earlier mentioned can treat ongoing stress or trauma.
Risk factors for bipolar disorder
Most people have bipolar disorder for about seven years before diagnosis. Catching the symptoms in our children could improve their quality of life and reduce risk-taking behaviours such as spending and casual sex. There are three areas found in our children that are the strongest risk factors for bipolar disorder in children: anxiety/depression most of the time, mood swings, and low-level manic symptoms just before diagnosis.
Low-level manic symptoms could include impulsive behaviour, irritability, mood swings, risk-taking behaviour and more.
A parent who developed a mood disorder at an early age. Children who had all four of these risk factors had a 49% chance of developing bipolar disorder.
If you see several of these symptoms, talk with your child’s family doctor. Get them into a counsellor or psychologist. If you don’t feel you are getting the answers you and your child need to insist on seeing a psychiatrist.
Reducing the severity of bipolar disorder
Prevention of childhood trauma is crucial to reducing the severity of bipolar disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a great deal of information on violence prevention.
Watching our children for these risk factors including childhood trauma improve your child’s outcome with bipolar disorder.
Childhood trauma has been shown to have an association with developing bipolar disorder at an earlier age, increasing the risk of suicide attempts, and an additional diagnosis of substance abuse. Childhood trauma was also linked to mood imbalance, impulsivity, and rapid-cycling (having four or more manic, hypomanic, or depressive episodes a year).
How can we help our children
By knowing the risk factors including childhood trauma and the early symptoms, we as bipolar parents can make sure we prevent as many risk factors as possible in our children. We also need to get help early for our children. The strongest risk factors in children are anxiety or depression most of the time, mood swings most of the time, and low-level manic symptoms.
Low-level manic symptoms could include impulsive behaviour, irritability, mood swings, risk-taking behaviour and more. Childhood trauma is linked to many risk factors and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Getting help early on can give your children a better outcome if they are developing bipolar disorder. If you see these symptoms or risk factors, please talk with your child’s doctor.
Image credit: Freepik
Brandy Higgins is a mental health blogger who manages Live Mentally Well and is a lifelong mental health survivor herself. Her blog is impacting our community and the world by inspiring mental wellness one person at a time.