Does Bipolar Disorder Run in Families?


I can trace Bipolar disorder in my family in at least three generations on my family tree. It’s interesting looking at my own tree, it feels like walking through a forest. Every tree is a little bit different, but they share parts of the same family. I have no idea if that made sense.  

I have and never will claim to be a professional in the realm of psychology and to treat mental illnesses on a professional level. My area of expertise comes in what I have experienced in my own life and what I have learned about myself over the years. So when I say, Bipolar disorder runs in my own family, at least one side of my family tree, I say this because it’s what I have come to realize over the years.

I want to start by talking about my biological father. I say “biological father” out of habit. He was never a real part of my life, and I was raised by my father (who is technically my stepfather.) The man who raised me might not be my father biologically, but he is the one person I have always called father (I honor this man by using his first name as the first name in my pen name, James Edgar Skye.) I note this because I don’t want confusion if the topic of my biological father comes up in later blog posts.

People always say that I look like my biological father and considering the resemblance it makes sense. What I know about my biological father is that he has had issues in his own life. I remember him mostly through the stories my mom told me, she married my biological father and loved him at one point, and stories about his own struggles with depression are similar to my own. Stories of being in the bathroom with a gun to his head wanting to end his life. The same issues that he dealt with in his life, and I would assume still does, mirror my own problems. We both at some point in our lives wanted to end it all.

It was only a few years after I started to get better where mom helped me make the parallel connections of my own struggles with that of my biological father. She would tell me stories of the time he locked himself in the bathroom with a gun to his head wanting to end his life. The same issues that he dealt with in his life, and I would assume still does, mirror my own problems. We both at some point in our lives wanted to end it all.

It goes deeper than that because unlike myself who has been treated for my issues over the years my father and other family members have not gotten help. My grandfather had issues with uncontrollable anger, and I can find parallels to when I turned to rage when I am in a manic episode. Hearing the stories about my father and my grandfather has helped me make connections to my own experiences and to my belief that Bipolar disorder is hereditary in my family.

I know it comes from one side of my family tree and not the other. I also have a select few of relatives from this family tree that have also sought treatment for the Bipolar disorder. It is a real issue that affects multiple people in my family, and it makes sense to believe that Bipolar One something that can follow similar patterns with a family tree.

I decided this would be a great subject to write about in blog post because it’s something that I often talk about with others I have met with a mental illness. Even the professionals, my psychiatrists, and my therapist have told me over the course my diagnosis this is possible. I think anyone with the disease Bipolar disorder should look at their own family tree, it might a great way to connect with other people you know within your family and better understand their own experiences.

On this subject, I know more about Bipolar disorder than other family connections to other mental illnesses. I am curious to see what people comment on this blog post.

I think the other side of it that no matter the reality that Bipolar disorder is something that can run in families is that, while we learn from the experiences of others, it is also true that our experience and expertise is in our own journey. It’s great to look at outside sources to better understand our journey because we can identify our own struggles in the struggles of others but never forget your own journey.

I have been reflecting so much over last few months on my own journey that a post like this makes sense to write about here where I am have been sharing my life. Knowing that Bipolar disorder might be something that can affect other people within my own blood makes me wary of the future. The big question becomes, could I pass this on to my own children?

It’s a scary thought and one that often comes to mind when I think about my future. If I found someone that I connected to at such a level that we would have children, I would always have this thought in mind. It haunts me because it is a scary thing passing what is wrong with me to another human being.

For so long I always figured having children is probably not in the cards for me, I still think this is true, but it comes from a specific place. It may be true that I could pass on the Bipolar trait so to speak, and that would be the safest path to follow not to procreate. These thoughts don’t pop up often since my diagnosis. It is why my relationships have never really lasted. I am terrified of the life I have lived and the possibility of passing on my history.

It’s funny though, the more open I have been over the last year, and especially the last few months I have seen what just opening up my again has brought me. Real connections. For so long I have been disconnected from the real world because it was easier to go into my introverted personality and hide there for the rest of my life. Writing about my journey has never been an easy task, and knowing that my life is more open will undoubtedly change my perspective on relationships in the future. But I can’t shake the real fear that someday I could pass being Bipolar to another.

I think change is good. Now that I have written about my own belief that Bipolar disorder is something that runs in my family I can have a better perspective on life.

J.E. Skye

Photo Credit: Matt Antonioli


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79 Replies to “Does Bipolar Disorder Run in Families?”

  1. I am the same, I can trace bipolar on one side of the family. I can also trace depression through the other side. I have a son and for me, thinking that might pass down to him, puts me in a better position to be able to support him if he does get anything.

    1. That’s a great point I think I sometimes forget. Even if I were to pass it on, with my experiences I could recognize the signs. It just really worries me that it could happen.

  2. You definitely have a credible claim to a mental illness running in your family! I have a degree in psychology and am currently working on a Master’s in applied behavioral science. I took a psychopathology class over the summer, and nearly every disorder we discussed had a potential genetic cause. I say potential, because mental illness can stem from any number of (or combination of) things, but biology is one of them.

    I spoke with my therapist earlier this year about my fear of passing on depression to a future child. Her reply was, in more or less words, “Who better to help them through it than you?” Since I have depression, and get help for it, and speak openly about it, I’d be much more qualified to help a hypothetical child of mine with the same health condition!

    I hope that made sense and/ or helped in some small way. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you for writing this, and you have no idea how much this helps me. It does on so many levels. Your point is valid and it applies to me as well. I have a wealth of experience with these issues. Even if I were to pass it on, it would be something that could be managed. Thank you for sharing!

  3. It runs in my family as well! As far as I know, three generations back. And I hate using the label bipolar. As much as it is a medical condition, it doesn’t define me. I am quirky and fun and I love that I am stranger than others. I am a special tree in the forest that others look at and think, “hey, that’s new and refreshing.” Thank you for sharing! I love your writing style! 💖

    1. I am not a fan of the label either. But it has always defined me and it is why I chose the moniker “The Bipolar Writer.” I like the special tree thing as well. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post.

  4. Mental illness runs in both my husband and my family. Because if this we both decided to not have children. That is a huge reason for us. I love children but I also know the enormous job it is to raise a human being and I don’t think I’d be able to handle it which would not be fair to the life I bring. It’s a personal choice, one we did not take lightly. Some days I question it but I know deep down that it is the right one for me.

    1. I can completely understand that your decision would go down this road. It makes sense and the likelihood would be high. I can’t imagine having to make that tough decision. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I agree with you. Unfortunately, I passed on my anxiety to two of my granddaughters. When I was young anxiety was not named as such and certainly not treated. I had no clue that I would pass this on to others. I’m not sure what I would have decided.

    1. I am sorry to hear that, it’s hard to say now what you would have decided. But you have two granddaughters so that in itself is good. Even though they have struggled with anxiety they have you. That is what I have learned since writing this blog.

  6. There is a link because epigenetics research shows we started life as cells in the body of our parents and them of their parents and depression and trauma or emotional separations or loss can be passed on. I have traced my two sister’s bi polar back to our great great grandfather on my Mum’s side. I see a connection also between addiction and bi polar as in bi polar disorder the person had trouble facing and dealing and containing their emotions as they never learned how as their parents could not model it. My great great grandfather became alcoholic and out of control after the loss of his mother. Also if you are sensitive and prone to deep feeling you will travel lower. And if you are intelligent, spiritual and full of fire that burning can take you high but not in a contained way. Mark Wolynn has written an excellent book on ancestral connections in terms of trauma and other things passed down called It Didnt Start With You. It doesnt deal with bi polar disorder per se but its still an interesting read. That said taking control of and becoming aware of thoughts and feelings and our reactions helps us to become more balanced, but often the suffering that goes on prior to this is intense, as you and so many other readers know. I am not bi polar but I think I could have been if I didnt get into addicition recovery when I was 31. I was carrying three generations of trauma, that I now know. I know it Didnt Start With Me and if I work to become conscious it will end here. I decided not to have children.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, I will look into Mark Wolynn’s work. It sounds very interesting. Its a tough thing to make that kind of decision and I really appreciate your feedback. Would you say it should be an individual person’s choice, not in the sense someone should be making the choice for us, but we should look inward to make such a decision?

      1. About children? I think I would have loved to have a child had I done my emotional recovery work earlier than I did. Sadly as a part of my story when I was suffering and addicted I had several terminations. The last time I fell pregnant I was in early sobriety and to be honest I was scared of having a child when I was beginning to realise I was still a child myself. I never feel pregnant again in my marriage which lasted 8 more years. I think it is a very individual choice and its not bad to have kids even if you are suffering an illness of some kind, who is to say what their path is to be and what they will end up making of that. So yes, each of us has to look inward and reconcile with the instinctual truth inside us. We all approach things in our own way. There are no rules. Things happen as they are meant to happen

  7. First, I want to thank you for writing this post and sharing. I am currently doing a lot of reflecting on my own family history of mental illness and how I have been struggling with my own. I definitely relate on the “biological father” perspective and really trying to piece together the gaps that I feel are missing from not knowing enough. I’m beginning to reflect more and reach out to relatives to see how the history of mental health issues is being passed down. I really appreciate you writing this. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for sharing. Working through my own family tree helped me get through a lot of my own issues. To know that this didn’t start from me, kinda helps.

  8. My mental health team (those who help monitor and treat me) have all said that there is a tendency to have bipolar or other mental health issues if someone in your family does. They also asked me many times about people who have ADD/ADHD in my family because they say that this connects similarly to bipolar patients.

    When I was diagnosed in March 2008, I wouldn’t accept it at first. I bucked it at every single turn. I had never seen any good from that word. I believed all the stereotypes because that was all that I was taught. Even after I was being treated for bipolar I kept it a secret from everyone including family.

    Then there was a time that I needed help and in order to do so I had to start letting people in on the secret. An amazing thing happened (if you can call it that). When I started sharing about what I was going through several family members began sharing their stories that they had kept hidden as well. In my family on both sides I have one parent, 2 brothers, 4 cousins, 2 aunts, a great-grandparent who all have bipolar diagnoses or have had issues that seem like bipolar but weren’t diagnosed.

    1. I think that is the biggest thing that I want to fight with my blog, the stereotypes that we believe when we are diagnosed. I too had trouble accepting my diagnosis, so much so that I lost three years of diagnosis and even the seven years since, only in the last three or four years have I got real about my diagnosis and started down the path of getting better.

      I want for people to be more open and I am glad you found some links within your own family that are dealing with the same issues as your own.

      1. I’m currently in a full blown manic state. I’ve not been in this bad of one in a good while. So tonight I’m gonna blog about that.

  9. I have known for years this usually runs in families, and while some of my siblings have only episodes with depression, I do have one that has borderline personality disorder (which is where A LOT of her anger comes from). We get it from our father’s side of the family, but is something he has never admitted to having (though it is so very obvious to me that his constant mood swings, etc. are caused by it), nor would he ever deign to try and seek help – as a retired minister, he feels it would be a weakness, something out of his control, and he loooooves being in control. I knew I never wanted to raise my own child from an early age, and once I was diagnosed at 25, that put the nail in the coffin for me on having biological children and I fought hard to have my tubes tied, which is rare in someone that young with no children (but that is another story). I am lucky to have a lovely child in my life, that is my current partner’s son, and I feel fortunate for that. But I would never want to pass along this disease to a child. I have a dear friend, who can trace it from her father to her and sadly now her 8 year-old son who is having a very rough go of it, most of the time. Once again, great post. Very timely. Very needed. Thank you.

    1. Its a tough thing making that kind of decision. I think this subject is a good one to talk about and one that I think every individual living with a mental illness must make the decision for themselves. I always thought that it was the right decision for me considering how bad things have been in my life, but lately I have been pulled in a different direction. I don’t know how I really feel about this anymore. Thank you for sharing, it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.

  10. I think you’re so right, James. In our family, my side tends to have depression and anxiety and my son’s father’s family has several people with bipolar. When we first saw a psychiatrist with my son, the psychiatrist said, “What did you think was going to happen?” which seemed a little rough to me, but his point was that all of those mood disorders mixed together and added to my sons’ chances of having mood disorders of their own. Both of my sons say now that they don’t want to have children of their own, because my older son’s path has been so challenging. It makes me sad to think that even with medication and care he still thinks that his life is that unrewarding. I keep hoping that scientists will find something that truly will make the situation of people with debilitating disorders better.

    1. It is a tough choice to make, not wanting to pass on your own issues is, wow, one of the hardest choices people like me can make. I hope that one day they truly find a way to fix the issues of mental illness. For now we must work on our mental health the best way that we can, thank you for sharing it couldn’t have been easy.

  11. Interesting James…I enjoyed reading this. I tracked mine back 3 generations way back when I was first diagnosed and then now 4 as it was passed on to both of my children. It never manifests the same as bipolar as such to all (the members of my mother’s side of the family), but everyone that has touched me directly are all bipolar. Again…thanks for the post…it helps a lot with current issues.

  12. I definitely agree with the genetic link within families. My great-grandmother suffered from psychosis, possibly schizoaffective disorder. Her granddaughter, who is my mother, has bipolar 2. I have schizoaffective disorder (which was initially diagnosed as bipolar 1) and both my sisters have bipolar 2. I also suspect my 10 year old son has a mood disorder, though he is very young and also autistic.

    1. Wow. I am sorry to hear about your son especially so young. It’s good that you are identifying it. It’s also good to know about family history because it’s so important to your own history. Many of the people in my family are undiagnosed.

      1. What is the medical system like in your country, relating to psychiatric care? Here is the UK, resources are thinly stretched.

      2. It’s overall really bad. Drug prices are through the roof and the system is based on profits not helping people.

  13. I find it comforting reading your post knowing some one else has the same fears of having children. I’ve only recently been diagnosed bipolar 2 borderline bipolar 1 and I have been with my partner for nearly two years. He wants children and has been talking about us having children and I sometimes feel like I would be okay and then look back on all of my struggles mentally before this year and it scares me that sometimes I can not even look after myself let alone another person that would be entirely dependent on me! I would never want my child to go through what I have and feel the way that I do but like you it certainly runs in my family and I could potentially pass it on to my children which I wouldn’t want. Thank you for your post.

    1. You are very welcome. It’s something that I have considered for a long time. It’s an interesting thing because I could never forgive myself if what I have lived through was put on my children because I would be their father. It’s tough. I think if I had the right partner it might change things but it’s a scary reality.

      1. I totally understand, I’d hate to think that they felt the way I felt. It’s not an easy thing to live with. My partner has definitely changed my perspective on children and I used to think I would never have children but now I feel as though I could have children but the worry is still there I just also have this feeling that I do not want to let him down because I know how much he wants children. Time will only tell and maybe you will find someone one day that will help you see things in a different way. The feeling may never go away but at least if someone can help you see it from another perspective it might not seem as scary 🙂

  14. I believe most definitely…a huge line on my mother’s side…including myself and 2 children…some hit or miss other conditions less severe…but most bp…interesting post as always…tc

  15. Interesting post – and certainly an important point. I spent years in denial of my bipolar diagnosis until one day I contacted my estranged mother and told her I had this condition. I expected her to be ignorant of the subject but to my amazement she said ‘your grandfather is bipolar and his grandmother died in a mental hospital.’

    From then on, everything changed and I began to accept that this condition is something in my genes.

    I didn’t know my grandfather very well but thinking back to his erratic behaviour, it all makes sense. He’s still alive but old and frail now. Still, he was recently sectioned – again a complete surprise to me.

    I find it interesting that from what I know of my family tree, it has skipped a generation each time. I wonder if I had my own children it would be passed to them, or if history would repeat and it would be passed to my grandchildren. Maybe I’ll never know.

  16. I started writing to ease my feelings with Bipolar. One day I was talking online to my cousin Tracey and we decided to write a family anthology in honour of my grandparents. Tracey lives in another country. I asked everyone to simply write and email me the poems. When I started editing I found that myself, Tracey and another family member had all produced poems called ‘Darkness’ and the content was strikingly similar. All of us have bipolar diagnoses!!!!!

    1. That is amazing. Just from the position of all of you three wrote similar poems. I have been convinced for a long time that Bipolar, or mental illness in general, can run in families.

      1. They were so similar! Right down to the titles. It certainly does run in families. The neurophysiology is recognisable in MRI scans, so I would say it is organic and may therefore be genetic.

  17. My doctor says 100% genetic. He told me that at our first meeting 7 months ago. I thought back on family members and relatives on both sides of my family. I came up with my mothers brother. I posed the question to my sisters (individually) when we were together having casual conversation. Of all our relatives, can you think of any that may express these characteristics of Bipolar. All three, without hesitation, answered Uncle C. It shocked me.

    My doctor knows that I blog and spend time on the internet discussing bipolar disorder. He tells me to make sure that I talk about prevention. I agree. It ain’t going away, but the disorder dimension is preventable. That has been my experience.

    Bipolar is a gift. Prevent the disorder and then share your gift with the world. If you haven’t read A First Rate Madness, I recommend it.

  18. Absolutely. My great grandfather on my mom’s side of the family was committed and given shock treatment for anger issues and mood swings. Both of my dad’s parents were alcoholics and his mom, my grandmother, was prone to depressions and eventually drank herself to death shortly after my parents got married. I didn’t hear any of these stories until years after I first started dealing with my own problems with mental illness and addiction. As an adult I have come to recognize my mom’s blatant clinical depression and realize it was there all through my childhood and grew more pronounced as she’s gotten older.

  19. I definitely think it can run in families! My grandfather, my dad, and my brother are all bipolar. I only realized this when my brother was diagnosed, from there i was able to connect his experiences to my fathers and grandfathers, only for whatever reason my dad refuses to ever see any sort of doctor. It really is helpful to see these patterns though, it definitely can be beneficial. I am probably the only person my dad and brother can talk to most days, because i know what upsets them and the ways they communicate. Learning that there is a pattern in your family im sure has been beneficial to you too, and alot more makes sense too!

  20. I believe my father had bipolar disorder. He didn’t get any help until his last few years when he developed late-onset schizophrenia. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and now an aunt on my mother’s side of the family has it also. I unfortunately have psych disorders on both sides of the family. As far as passing it on…when I was still considering having kids I wanted to adopt, partially for that reason, but numerous other reasons also. Though if I did have a child who developed any kind of psych disorder at least I would be knowledgeable in getting them professional help early on.

    1. I worry about going beyond being bipolar. My first diagnosis was schizoaffective Disorder. It was only with antipsychotics that it was changed to Bipolar one. I worry so much about passing it on. But your poInt is right. I have this great knowledge and I know the signs.

    1. It is something that needs to be addressed more not just in the mental illness community but also by doctors. It is important for our future is the way I look at.

  21. Oh my goodness…this brought tears into my eyes. Depression runs really deep in my father’s side, hence that is why I have severe problems with depression. My mother’s side has no history with depression or anxiety (that I know of). I truly believe that any kind of mental illness can be genetic.

  22. Thanks for sharing, I love reading your writing because it really opens my eyes about the bipolar disorder. I’ve honestly learned so many new things from your posts.

  23. I truly believe it is genetic given my own genetic make up. My maternal grandmother had four children, I have four children. She really started to go downhill with Bi Polar 1 after her fourth child. I, too, have found that after my fourth child, I just became wired as such. We don’t know much about the mental illness before her, mostly because no one ever sought any help but my mother believes her grandmother, too, suffered from it. My father’s side of the family has various cancers and memory disorders, but the mental health seems to have been neglected in documentation mostly because his mother came straight from Germany and his father went MIA a few short years into his childhood. My mother and her sister did not inherit this trait but her younger brother did and his youngest son. It’s at least a good determining factor for my maternal side. I’m thankful for those people, however, because it made me proactive in my mental health journey.

  24. I truly believe it is hereditary. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression all can be found in my family and I ended up with a combination- schizoaffective disorder. It can be hard to deal with and I have had no children to pass it on to, and for that I am thankful. I don’t think I would be capable of raising a child in my condition and the thought of passing my family’s mental issues along is a troublesome one. I understand the struggle and I guess it is up to the individual to decide if it is worth the risk.

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