Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Familial Mental Illness: The Anxiety of Genetics

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 21, 2012

Joseph, fifty-two, has bipolar disorder, as does his brother, his mother and his maternal grandmother. His daughter, Elsa, age six, has some really bad temper tantrums and he is worried, I mean really worried, that Elsa also has bipolar disorder. “I just can’t sleep at night. Every time she gets upset I am asking myself if this is normal, or if this is the beginning of this dreaded disease.” Joseph says with terror in his voice. “We will have to keep an eye on Elsa and see how she handles stress,” I say, stating that I understand his fears, but it is premature to say that Elsa has bipolar disease. Dealing with Joseph’s anxiety is now my focus, although I also see the importance of monitoring Elsa’s behavior. I feel for Joseph in his fear that he has transmitted his illness, however unwillingly, to his daughter. There is this sense that Joseph would feel responsible for this genetic transmission, which although is not rational, I understand. My job is to help Joseph cope with  and his fear of Elsa’s future. Worrying about his daughter is sweet and concerning in one way, but if it exceeds his ability to enjoy her, can be detrimental to her development. Joseph and I look together for that sweet spot of concern without negativity. It is a challenge.

2 Responses to “Familial Mental Illness: The Anxiety of Genetics”

  1. Shelly said

    Yes it’s sweet and responsible too. Have you explained to him the possible transmission rate of 25 percent and that with good vigilance, it is possible to catch this disease early? Are you dealing with Joseph’s anxiety and guilt?

    • Yea, the numbers are clear and yes, we have discussed it. Catching it early is helpful, but it is still a frightening realization. Yes, dealing with Joseph’s anxiety and guilt is a large part of our work, as when all is said and done, we can’t hold ourselves responsible for genetic transmission. This is the roulette wheel of life.

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