Being Raised by a Bipolar Parent
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Q:  Being Raised by a Bipolar Parent

My husband is a functional bipolar individual. Holds a good job. He was just diagonsed in 10/2004. We are  in the midst of a divorce and the court appointed  child psychologist indicates that my husband should  have no overnights with my kids until the youngest  turns 2 in a couple of months. My other child is 3.5  yo. Once my youngest child turns 2 then every other  weekend from 11a on Sat to 7P on Sunday with no  overnights during the week. The judge is currently  giving my husband every Wednesday and every other  weekend from Friday-Monday. The child psychologist  testified for ~40 minutes on his recommendation. I  have never done drugs. I may have 6 alcoholic drinks  in a year. I have a good job. Educated. Bottom line  an overall good  person.

My husband will only release his diagnosis and that he  is under the care a psychiatrist and that he is in  compliance.

I don't feel that my kids are safe with any bipolar  person for extended times regardless of whether it is  there father or not. This same judge has given another bipolar father full custody of his kids-I do not know  the circumstances of the mother. 

Please help if you can. Is it safe of a bipolar parent to be raising 2 very young children?

Thank you.
...Ms. C

Dear Ms. S' --
May I request at the outset that my reply not be used in any court proceeding, as I am not a legally-oriented ("forensic") psychiatrist and could mislead the court with my answer. I am answering as a volunteer psychiatrist for, and my reason for answering is to see if I can be of some help to you, by presenting as straightforward an answer to your question as possible.  

Most aspects of your question are deeply involved in your divorce proceedings, it appears. Sorting out what you want to know that is separate from the divorce issues is tricky, but I think we could tackle this issue you pose:   

      I don't feel that my kids are safe with any bipolar person for extended times
      regardless of whether it is there father or not.

To be concerned, in general, about your children’s safety is entirely understandable and expectable. But I think you might have a conception of bipolar disorder which is not accurate.

If you were to post this on a bipolar website where people with bipolar disorder I think you’d get some angry mail. But it might be good for you to hear their thoughts; so I’m going to put them in non-angry terms here, in the hopes that you might be able to “hear” me more than you might them, through their anger. However, one of the reasons I asked to put this on BipolarWorld is so that people would have the chance to respond if they wished, and you could read what they say without having it directed straight at you. 

People with bipolar disorder: that’s the politically correct way to say “bipolar person”, for your information; but it’s a useful way to remind oneself, every time it comes out of one’s mouth or writing, that people have bipolar disorder, just as they have heart disease; they are not “cardiac cases”, that is, they are not defined by their illness. They are people, people who have an illness.

Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness, just like heart disease. It’s possible for people who have heart disease to live normal lives; likewise it’s possible for people with bipolar disorder to lead normal lives. It all depends on the success of treatment (which depends on a lot of factors; a person’s efforts to make treatment work definitely play a role here).

So it is entirely possible that your children would be completely safe with their father. Indeed, we know that for most kids, not being with their parent has some potential to be damaging. I think most people with bipolar disorder would want the assumption to be that if their treatment is working properly, if their illness is well-controlled, if they have demonstrated a vigilance about their symptoms and a close relationship with their treatment providers (e.g. a doctor and/or a therapist with bipolar experience) that they be handled in a divorce proceeding just as though they did not have bipolar disorder.

You note all the “if’s” in that sentence. I would hope that your husband would take it upon himself to provide evidence supporting all these if’s, knowing that a reasonable person would expect such reassurance to insure the children’s safety. A person with manic or depressive symptoms is not necessarily dangerous to children, mind you; but some such symptoms could pose some risk. It’s hard to take care of oneself, let alone others, when severely depressed, for example; conversely, manic symptoms include difficulty assessing risk, such as how fast one should drive.

I think most people with bipolar disorder would acknowledge that unchecked manic symptoms should be a basis for concern for children’s safety, though this may still be roughly in the same ballpark, for many people with bipolar disorder anyway, as the risk to the children of weathering a contentious divorce and enduring the aftermath thereof. In other words, in general I’d be equally worried about protecting the children from awful divorce proceedings as I would about a person with bipolar disorder’s capacity to parent, especially if historically her/his bipolar disorder was well controlled and she/he had a good working relationship with the doctor or therapist involved.

Sorry about the delay in replying to your question. I hope this may prove useful to you and your family in some way.

[I’ll send this reply, and your original question, minus your name and email address, to for posting. If you’re interested, you can inquire there about any feedback that came in about this. I could be wrong, for example; someone might post a very different view more supportive of your original concern.]

Dr. Phelps

Published April, 2006


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