Did Childhood Emotional Abuse Cause My Mental Illness?


I belong to a fair number of bipolar support groups on Facebook and I often read posts or comments from people who attribute the cause or the severity of their bipolar disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to emotional abuse, particularly in childhood and particularly from family members.

I can’t really comment on PTSD since I don’t have it, but I do have some experience with emotional abuse.

First, let me say what I experienced was never physical abuse, unless you count deserved childhood spankings, which I know some people do. No sexual abuse, either. My childhood was pretty idyllic, if you get right down to it. My parents never divorced. We lived in a neat suburb of starter homes with excellent schools, where I got good grades and praise. We frequently visited our extended family in the next state, with plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins, farms and chickens and horses, along with occasional trips to local state and national parks. We went to the nearest local church, which did not emphasize hellfire and brimstone. If there was any mental illness in my family, I never knew about it.

And yet, sometime during my childhood, bipolar disorder began to manifest. My life, of course, was not perfect. I was smart and loved school, and was very different from my parents, who weren’t big readers and didn’t know what to do with me, especially in the area of developing social skills and guiding my education. I fought with my sister, but not any more than other siblings I knew.

But then there was the bullying at school — the first emotional abuse I can remember.

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle. There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind. And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

It seemed a bit extreme. I have also read about bullying and its relation to emotional abuse.

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.” He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

So. Emotional abuse in my childhood, in the form of bullying. Did it cause my bipolar disorder?

Probably not. But it sure didn’t help.

I was already at the least depressed and most likely bipolar by the time all that happened, and was certainly bipolar by the time I encountered undeniable emotional abuse in young adulthood.

But I firmly believe the roots of my bipolar disorder were located squarely in my brain. I don’t think the emotional abuse caused my bipolar disorder. But I sure as hell know that it exacerbated the illness, which has made it all the harder for me to make progress in finding peace and healing over the decades.

But I can only speak for myself. Your mileage may vary.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.


Related to Bipolar Disorder

person walking on sand dune

When You Feel Lost Because of Your Mental Illness Diagnosis

In a recent counseling session, I told my counselor I don’t know how to be successful anymore, not since my identity “changed” in 2012 when I was diagnosed. I don’t even know what success looks like for me. I gained this label and seemed to lose so much simultaneously. I didn’t know how to get [...]
Hands holding game pad and playing shooter game on tv screen.

How Bipolar Disorder Can Affect 'Everyday Addictions'

On a very basic level, bipolar disorder is living in an up and down cycle between depression and mania. So this means many of us with bipolar disorder bounce between the two, stay in the middle if we can, but have to face the reality of this disorder. One reality for me is addiction. Mania is the up to the down [...]
girl sitting in tub covering face

When You're Battling Both Mental and Chronic Illness

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2008 and bipolar disorder in 2010. I have days where my Crohn’s symptoms seem to dictate my life and days where my bipolar disorder affects me to the point of being too anxious to leave the house or too depressed to even get out of bed to do [...]
parent and child stand far apart from each other in the desert

How My Parents Reacted to My Bipolar Diagnosis

I remember getting my Crohn’s disease diagnosis; my mom sobbing and telling me about her friend’s brother who died from it at an early age. And then her reaction to my bipolar diagnosis; her disbelief and her saying how I’ve always had an “intense” personality, a bad temper, and anxiety from being a perfectionist. Little [...]