Roughly 2.6 percent of Americans will experience the condition known as bipolar disorder.1 Characterized by extreme highs and lows in mood, bipolar disorder can disrupt daily life when not treated effectively.  Also, because the disorder can increase the risk of substance use, suicide, and other risky behaviors, it’s important to diagnose and treat the disorder as early as possible. Knowing the causes and risk factors of bipolar disorder can help with early detection and treatment.

There is no known exact cause of bipolar disorder. Researchers have yet to find the exact genes that contribute to the disorder or understand exactly how the brain physically changes when the disorder is present. Researchers, however, do have a sense of what factors increase your risk of developing the disorder. The disease is highly heritable, so having a family member with the condition increases the risk greatly. While people are genetically predisposed to be at risk of the disorder, not all of these people develop bipolar disorder. This suggests that environmental factors and psychological factors can trigger manic or depressive episodes, although not everyone with the disorder will experience a triggering event.2

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Risk Factors

Family with the Disorder – if you have a relative in your nuclear family with bipolar disorder, such as a parent or sibling, then you may be at higher risk for the mood disorder. Symptoms may first emerge during teenage years or early adulthood, with the average of onset being 25.3 One analysis of the literature found that children of parents with a severe mental illness had roughly a one-third chance of developing a severe mental illness by adulthood. Researchers have also found that the earlier age your parent is diagnosed with the disorder, the higher your risk is for also developing it.4

However, we know that genetics isn’t the only factor. Studies of identical twins have shown that while bipolar disorder is very heritable, both twins will not always develop the disorder. This means that environmental factors can play a role as well in increasing or decreasing risk of developing the condition.5

High Stress – People who experience traumatic events are at higher risk for developing bipolar disorder. Childhood factors such as sexual or physical abuse, neglect, the death of a parent, or other traumatic events can increase the risk of bipolar disorder later in life. Highly stressful events such as losing a job, moving to a new place, or experiencing a death in the family can also trigger manic or depressive episodes. Lack of sleep can also increase risk of a manic episode.6

Substance Abuse – People who abuse drugs or alcohol are also at risk for developing bipolar disorder. Substance use doesn’t cause the disorder, but it can make mood episodes worse or hasten the onset of symptoms. Sometimes medications can also trigger the onset of a manic or depressive episode.7 However, because substance use can trigger psychosis, a person may have to detox from substances before a doctor can give them a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Gender – Bipolar disorder affects men and woman equally, but women are three times more likely to experience rapid cycling of mood episodes. They are also more likely to experience depressive and mixed episodes of the disorder compared to men.8

If you’re not sure whether you’re at risk for bipolar disorder, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or another mental illness?
  • Have you experienced childhood trauma?
  • Have you experienced recent stressful events or lack of sleep?
  • Have you noticed extreme changes in mood after using drugs or alcohol?
  • Have extreme mood changes impacted your work, daily responsibilities, or relationships?

Even if you answer “no” to all these questions, you can still talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about your concerns and receive a diagnostic evaluation. If you have the disorder and are concerned about the risks for your own children, consult with a professional about the risks and what interventions can help your child maintain good mental health.

Above all, remember that bipolar disorder is very treatable, and medication, therapy, and other interventions can play a huge role in managing symptoms and slowing rapid mood changes. Talk to someone today who can help you get started on the right path towards a healthier daily life.

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Last Updated: Feb 13, 2018