Stories of hereditary bipolar disorder, an upcoming study

on June 24, 2021
Stories of hereditary bipolar disorder, an upcoming study

This post is a part of a three-part series over the next year, where PhD student Nathalie Sagar will be documenting her dissertation research about hereditary bipolar disorder.

As the child of a parent with bipolar disorder, my desire is to improve the way we communicate with people who have a parent with bipolar disorder. This is why, in my dissertation research, I aim to explore the stories of adults who not only experience bipolar disorder themselves, but also have a parent living with bipolar disorder.

For this research, I hope to collaborate with CREST.BD to interview participants who will help me to gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of people with a hereditary mental illness. The purpose of the study is to provide a rich and broad understanding that can more accurately capture the strengths and needs associated with living with bipolar disorder, as well as having a parent with bipolar disorder.

In my PhD studies in the UBC School and Applied Child Psychology program, I bring to my research two separate perspectives: one from my personal experience and the other from my professional training. As a child of a parent with bipolar disorder, I can see the hereditary nature of bipolar disorder through my family tree. I’ve also seen first-hand the gifts and challenges it has brought my family as it has been passed down through great grandparents, uncles, parents, and siblings. As a clinician who works to support the mental well-being of children and families, I bring to my research professional capacity and practical knowledge of some of the challenges faced by families and children today.

Introduction to research

Although we know that bipolar disorder has a strong hereditary link (Edvardsen et al., 2008; Hirschfel-Becker et al., 2006), much of the research to date has focused on the associated risk factors for family members. At times, this research reads like a laundry list of statistics of what may go wrong! What I feel the literature is currently missing is in-depth stories of the experiences of family members; stories that may allow us to more accurately capture the varied experiences, both the strengths and difficulties associated with this condition.

There exists an emerging body of literature examining the experiences of children of parents with mental health diagnoses. However, the focus of this work so far primarily revolves around how the child’s experiences impact their own parenting practices (for example the work of Murphy, Peters, Wilkes & Jackson, 2018 and Patrick, Reupert & McLean, 2019). I have yet to find a study that has examined how those who experience intergenerational mental health disorders make sense of their lives, experiences, and their own journey with mental health and well-being.

I believe that in order to effectively and appropriately provide supports for children of a parent with bipolar disorder, we first need to learn about the experiences of the child and how they made sense of these experiences. In interviewing adult children I hope to learn about how they’ve made sense of their experiences growing up as well as their current experiences. We need information beyond a list of risk factors or estimated difficulties. This is why, for my dissertation, I want to:

    1. learn about the stories and experiences of individuals with bipolar disorder who have a parent who also experiences bipolar disorder
    2. learn how the child’s experience of their parent’s mental health shaped their own journey with mental health and well-being, including how they made sense of their experiences,
    3. understand the strengths, as well as the challenges, that the participants have experienced.

I hope that with this information we are able to develop a richer, informed, and even-handed understanding beyond the pathology associated with being a child of a parent with bipolar disorder.

Humans live storied lives

Hinged on the core belief that humans lead storied lives, and that it is through narratives that our lives and experiences are made meaningful and understood, I will be using Narrative Inquiry to conduct my research (Polkinghorne, 1988). I am set to begin interviewing participants in the fall of 2021. I will be looking to recruit adults with bipolar disorder who also have a parent with bipolar disorder who are willing to share their stories. Through these interviews I hope to gain in-depth descriptions of the participants’ experiences, and gain insight into how they have made sense of their journey as someone with a hereditary mental illness.

In preparation for conducting my research I have been reading stories of individuals who have bipolar disorder. Most recently, I read An Unquiet Mind, a memoir by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (1996). Dr. Jamison is both a prominent researcher and clinician in the area of bipolar disorder, who herself lives with bipolar disorder. In reading her stories I was able to see, feel, and truly empathize with, both the greatness and challenges she’s experienced in her own journey with mental health and well-being. I hope to facilitate similar understanding and provide a voice for a broader population through my research.

If this project is of interest to you, sign up for the CREST.BD newsletter for updates and for participant recruitment!

About Nathalie Sagar, M.A.

A picture of Nathalie at graduation. She is Caucasian and has long light-coloured hair. She is smiling and holding a bouquet of elegant green and white flowers. Her graduation cap and gown are black and she is wearing two long dangling earrings.

I am a PhD student in the School and Applied Child Psychology program at UBC. Through this program I have received training and experience in working and supporting the mental well-being of children and their parents through providing supports such as conducting diagnostic assessments and providing counselling. As an individual with a salient family history of bipolar disorder I am motivated to better understand the experiences of family members of those who have bipolar disorder, beyond the numbers.

If you have any questions about the upcoming project you can email me at

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