It’s no secret that mental illness was (and still is in some ways) a taboo topic of which an individual’s personal experience is rarely discussed openly. It’s also possible to live a full, normal and productive life with a mental health condition. All of this may mean that many people could have been raised by someone living with a mental illness ― and maybe they never really knew. Maybe their parents never even knew themselves.
This is especially true when it comes to a parent with a severe mental health condition such as bipolar disorder ― a condition that’s largely misdiagnosed, and for decades wasn’t adequately addressed. It is still estimated that more than half of Americans with bipolar disorder are untreated.
There are two types of the disorder: Bipolar I is classified by periods of mania that last at least a week. Those living with this condition may have increased energy, inflated self-image and other behaviors that could lead to risky actions. There will also be periods of depression, where a person may experience days or weeks of feeling sad, unmotivated or withdrawn.
Bipolar II disorder is defined by the depression aspect of the illness. Those with type II will experience intense depressive episodes. They may also experience hypomanic episodes, which are typically not as severe as a manic episode that comes with type I. Other symptoms of the illness, which span across both types, include irritability, difficulty concentrating, weight changes and disruptions in sleep patterns.
Growing up with a parent who is quietly dealing with — or not dealing with — bipolar disorder may “affect the child in many ways that continue into adulthood if proper treatment is not made available,” explained Viola Drancoli, a clinical psychologist in New York. “Having a parent with an untreated mental health diagnosis is an ongoing challenge for their children, even as they grow up and leave home.”
It’s absolutely vital to stress that having a mental illness doesn’t automatically mean someone is or will be a bad parent. But clarity on how the condition can affect a person’s life ― and as a result, potentially affect loved ones ― can be enlightening, according to experts.
It’s also important to emphasize that many residual effects come from caregivers who were not receiving therapy or medical treatment to manage their disorder. The lack of treatment for mental illness, in this case, can sometimes have more of an effect than the mental illness itself. Below, experts explain some of these residual effects:
Growing up around untreated or undisclosed bipolar disorder could affect your ability to make decisions easily
Lack of trust is a common theme with individuals who were raised by a parent with untreated or unmanaged bipolar disorder, and this extends to not trusting yourself.
Freda B. Friedman, a therapist and author of “Surviving a Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds and Build Trust, Boundaries, and Self-Esteem,” noted that many children of parents with an untreated mental health condition such as bipolar disorder have to be “hypervigilant about ‘reading’ others’ moods, needs and emotions — actual or anticipated” and that this habit develops early and unconsciously to mitigate the parent’s reactivity. Because the emotional response can’t be accurately anticipated all of the time due to the disorder, “this leads to a child’s sense of uncertainty and insecurity about their ability to make choices,” Friedman said.
If you find that you tend to deliberate over a decision for extended periods of time, practice making small decisions on your own to try to break this pattern, Friedman said.
You might place an emphasis on pleasing others over yourself
Those who have grown up around someone with untreated bipolar disorder may have tried to help their caregiver when their illness was (unknowingly) at its worst by being “good.” This, in turn, can make someone “agreeable or overly accommodating,” according to Friedman.
“Unfortunately this becomes an unconscious and internalized pattern as a child moves into adulthood and develops relationships outside of their family,” she said, adding that the way you’ve been conditioned to take care of a caregiver may lead you to feel selfish when you do basic things for yourself.
Drancoli noted this can lead to you focusing on the needs of others too much as an adult, adding that many of her patients with this upbringing “complain about feeling responsible to cater to others before attending to their own needs.”
You may feel the need to control or be responsible for everything
Growing up in an environment where you potentially had little control over your caregiver’s emotions — and potentially lots of emotional turmoil — can lead to you needing control and structure in adulthood. This coping mechanism is a way to “bring order to the chaos,” said Forrest Talley, a California-based clinical psychologist.
Children who grow up around parents with untreated bipolar disorder may experience more uncertainty in their lives and sometimes unmet emotional needs, according to Talley. “The more severe, and more poorly managed the disorder, the more likely this is to be the case,” he said.
He noted that this may also manifest through you assuming the role of “the responsible one in all situations.”
Quinn Austin-Small, a psychologist in New York, added: “Some children from households where parents are chronically unavailable or impaired may take on a parenting role themselves, and as adults, become overly fixated on following rules and making sure everything is safe. They may become rigid and preoccupied with keeping things orderly or otherwise predictable.”
You may struggle with trust in other relationships
As mentioned above, trust is a big issue with individuals who were raised by someone living with an unmanaged mental health condition. This is because “relationships often don’t feel secure,” Friedman said.
Though this is almost never intentional on the part of the parent (remember, no one chooses to have a mental illness), it may start very early in the child’s life and can have a lasting impact, even without the parent knowing. An untreated mental health issue can lead to the parent “not [being] attuned to the child and thus unresponsive to their needs,” which can lead to the child experiencing issues with trust, according to Drancoli.
This may result in both a heightened fear of abandonment and difficulty creating stable relationships, explained Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in California. The deep fear of being abandoned can also result in an individual avoiding intimate relationships altogether.
You might experience depression or anxiety
As the child of a parent with bipolar disorder, you’re at a higher risk for anxiety and depression, according to Manly. Data also shows children of parents with bipolar disorder are at a significantly higher risk for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“As adults, they may find that they are chronically anxious, easily slip into depression, or — at the extreme — are prone to suicidality,” Manly said.
If this hits close to home, remember that you’re not alone, healing is possible and that mental health issues can be managed with appropriate treatment.
“Hope is not lost for anyone in this situation,” Austin-Small said. “Psychotherapy to help sort out the messages they received and make sense of their experiences can be invaluable. By sharing their experiences and talking with others that have experienced the same, adult children can reduce their feelings of shame and alienation. … Many times there has been a high pressure to keep their experiences secret, and this only fosters a sense of being alone or being the only one to experience this.”
All of this isn’t to say that a caregiver is bad if they have a mental illness. You also shouldn’t feel ashamed of any experiences you may be having, whether they’re residual effects or new mental health struggles.
The most important thing to remember is that all mental health issues can improve with the right treatment. Talk with your family, a doctor and a mental health specialist to determine the right course of action. You can also take advantage of lower-cost treatment options if therapy isn’t a possibility because of financial or access reasons (which is super common). Everyone deserves to feel healthy.