By Alysa Short
Members of Amish and Mennonite communities are helping researchers learn more about bipolar disorder. On Nov. 5, more than 100 people attended a presentation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) held at Central Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, to learn more about this research. The event, coordinated by Bev Miller from Central, featured Dr. Francis McMahon, a researcher from the institute, which is located in Bethesda, Maryland.
While attendees learned about the causes of, treatment for and family impact on mental illnesses, Miller also shared her personal experience with bipolar. “Being bipolar is a life sentence, but I’m not in prison for it,” shared Miller. “I don’t want you to treat me any different knowing this about me.” As she shared, Bev gave the audience concrete ways to show her they care, ranging from greeting with, “It’s good to see you,” instead of, “How are you?” to “Walk with us gently, step by step.”
Although mental illness can be misunderstood and underestimated by many, it affects up to one in every four members of the general population, according to McMahon. Mental illness is something that can’t be seen and is defined as a broad range of conditions that disrupt thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Although it causes distress and disability, there is no known specific physical cause, often making it a harder to accept illness for many. While there are three main classes of mental illness — mood, anxiety and psychotic disorders — the event at Central Mennonite Church focused on bipolar.
Miller’s connection to the NIMH began in 2012 when she became aware of an Amish-Mennonite Bipolar Disorder Genetics Study being conducted by the institute to identify genes that contribute to bipolar disorder in people of Amish or Mennonite ancestry. The study is completely confidential with no costs to participants. When questioned by an audience member why the NIMH is focusing on these specific groups, Layla Kassem, a member of the clinical team who has worked only with Amish and Mennonites since the beginning of the study in 2009, responded that these groups tend to have large family sizes, community is the center of their life, and large groups of family members live in a relatively close geographical area. This means, for example, that everyone is eating the same thing. And in the case of Anabaptists, “it’s chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and everyone is eating pie,” she said, as if she herself had become a member of the community.
Geneticists continue to study the role of genes in mental illnesses. And while there is still much to learn, the continued research for AmBiGen, the name of the study, is helping to shine light on how the combination of genes and life’s circumstances affect mental illness. Because it is known that strong family bonds promote mental health and relatives share things that protect against mental illness, the researchers are continuing their pursuit of Amish and Mennonites who will participate in this study. Due to superior record keeping of these Anabaptists, the NIMH has been able to create a database of family information that dates back 12 generations, information integral to their continued study.
Anyone who suffers from bipolar who would be interested in becoming a part of this study should contact the National Institute of Mental Health. Study participants will receive a mental health interview and provide a blood sample; many are asked to fill out some additional tests about thinking, memory and emotions. Some are asked to provide a skin sample. “Everyone was very kind and still is,” explained Bev, about her participation. She encourages others to take part in the study, because by participating they will be “helping others in the future who are suffering.”
If you or someone or someone within your family is interested in participating in the National Institute of Mental Health’s AmBiGen (Amish-Mennonite Bipolar Disorder Genetics) study, call (301) 594-0576 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.