Wellness & Fitness

My mother has bipolar disorder, am I at risk of getting it?


Be wary of those doomsday agents who will tell you that you must leave him at once because of this first episode. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

My mother had erratic moods and would be hospitalised but my father told us she had malaria. I learned later that she had bipolar disorder. Am I at risk of getting it? How do I protect myself or ensure early diagnosis?

A comprehensive answer to all questions you have raised is clearly beyond the scope of this article. I will, to the extent possible deal with some of the issues that are clearly of concern.

Firstly, you would like us to explain malaria and the erratic mood swings that your mother used to have. When some people develop a fever, like what happens in malaria infections, they also become psychotic in a manner like what your mother might have had.

This is what some people call “Malaria Kubwa” meaning the big malaria. Other medical conditions also present similar symptoms of confusion and if one is not careful in making the diagnosis, one could lose a patient, who might be confused but be suffering from some other condition such as pneumonia.

Very low blood sugar, alcohol withdrawal, some types of epilepsy as well as some infections to the outer coverings of the brain (meningitis) might present with similar confusion.

This then brings us to Bipolar Mood Disorder. This is a common mental disorder occurring in about one to two per cent of the general population. It is one of the most heritable conditions with about ten per cent of the offspring of patients also having the condition in later life.

This therefore is the risk that you run. This also means that you have a ninety percent chance of not getting the condition! That is statistics for you.

To put it another way, there are people who develop BPMD without a family history of the condition. In this group of people, no member of the family will have had the condition, and this means that genes alone do not explain all that happens in the development of the illness.

You do not tell us how old you are but all the same you might want to know that the peak age of onset of symptoms is as early as twelve years. The average age of onset of symptoms is however later at the age of twenty-five years. This therefore is a condition that starts early in life.

You tell us that your mother was in erratic moods. That is exactly what happens in this condition. In the typical scenario, the person will either be in a state of severe and sometimes suicidal depressive state. At another time, the very opposite will happen and as you might have noticed in your mother.

In what is called the manic phase, the individual is elated in the extreme, feeling extraordinarily happy and optimistic, and many become very generous with words and deeds, sometimes giving away things they do not own.

Sexual indiscretions, extreme energy, and reduced need for sleep with many grand ideas are other common features of this condition. Others go on shopping sprees, while still others binge on alcohol even as they get into fights on account of increased irritability. Is that what your mother looked like?

You now ask us to tell you how to protect yourself. Now that you know that you have a higher risk of developing the condition than the public, it becomes even more important that you should have in place systems of monitoring that ensure early detection and intervention.

In the entire medical community, it is well known that good outcomes of treatment depend on early diagnosis. In mood disorders, and psychosis in general, the scientific evidence in support of screening and treating these conditions early is robust, and for that reason, your plan to ensure early diagnosis is most commendable.

Not knowing your life circumstances, all I can give is general advice on healthy living, which in your case would include regular exercise, adequate sleep, avoidance of excess use of alcohol and ensuring that you resolve all crises in a timely manner. Work and family-related conflicts are notorious sources of stress which sometimes is a precursor to illness.

Additionally, and in children in particular, there are early warning symptoms and signs that could tell a parent that all is not well. A drop in class performance might be an early warning. Similarly, a change in moods or lack of sleep or even an increased need for sleep might be the signs that could lead to full full-blown medical emergency, either depressive or manic.

In asking this question, it is clear to me that you are on the right track, in that you have set yourself on a journey of gathering information regarding the condition your mother might have had. Information will give you the power to manage yourself moving forward.

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