Bipolar disorder impacts more than a third of people in England, either because they live with the illness themselves or have a loved one who does, according to a survey by Rethink Mental Illness. Yet awareness of it is desperately low – research by the charity also revealed that half of people cannot correctly identify the condition.
Laura Peter, Rethink’s head of advice and information, explains: “Many people still believe in common misconceptions, like thinking it means you have a split personality, or believing that it can’t be treated.”
Bipolar disorder affects a person’s mood, meaning they will often fluctuate from one extreme to another. They will experience periods of mania, described as feeling very high and overactive, which are then followed by periods of depression.
“Mental illness is currently top of the agenda, and in the last few years we’ve seen a huge increase in the level of understanding and acceptance of conditions like depression and anxiety,” says Peters. “It’s vital that we keep this momentum going to ensure that those living with severe mental illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia are not left behind.”
We spoke to three people living with the mental illness about what they would like others to know.
Stigma is rife. “It is constantly seen as the ‘crazy’ people disease,” says 22-year-old Eki Igbinoba from south east London, who was diagnosed at 21. “It’s really frustrating because it doesn’t help sufferers try to lead a normal life.” She’s experienced a lack of understanding and awareness in the workplace too.
Oli Regan, 28, from London agrees that stigma is widespread and extremely problematic. “Some people think you should be in a padded cell,” he says. “We’re normal people, we just have extreme ups and downs and go through certain things that other people don’t.”
The diagnosis process isn’t easy. Regan’s diagnosis was years in the making. He started experiencing symptoms when he was nine years old but as he entered his teens, things spiralled out of control: “I got to about 18 or 19 and got into various things that I shouldn’t have been doing and situations I shouldn’t of been in,” he recalls. “My mental health just put me in those situations.” The result was that Regan tried to take his own life.
“Years of not knowing and not having any help made it 10 times worse,” he says. “Intervention at a younger age would have been a massive help.” Regan was diagnosed with emotional unstable personality disorder at 22, and bipolar disorder and anxiety one year later.
It can be hard to find medical support. It took a year for Igbinoba to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The process wasn’t easy: she was initially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) she explains – and because she doubted that diagnosis, it left her with “a sense of confusion”.
She says: “It took me going to a private therapist, a black woman by the way, to get the right diagnosis … we need more diverse options of doctors who can understand the racial and gender impacts of our mental health.”
Regan says that many medical professionals seem to have learned about mental illness from a text book. He met one person who was a lived experience practitioner (meaning they had bipolar disorder) and said “she was brilliant”.
It can run in the family. Clare Brooke’s grandmother and father had bipolar, and she also lives with it, having been diagnosed at 36 years old. According to the NHS, family members of someone who has a bipolar disorder have an increased risk of developing it, although no single gene is responsible.
There are positives. Brooke says when she’s on a high she will tend to do a lot of community work, which is hugely positive. But when she’s coming down, she gets upset that she can’t achieve as much. “I can’t think, I get brain fog,” she says. “I’m either an irritation to people for doing too well or underperforming.”
Regan says there have been times where he’s been on such a high it felt like he was in a film: “I felt like I was the star of the show.”
Relationships can suffer. With mood states fluctuating between immense highs and extreme lows, it can be difficult to maintain relationships. Igbinoba says bipolar disorder has impacted her friendships, as well as working and romantic relationships. “I am currently in a relationship and he is incredibly respectful and patient which helps a lot,” she says. “My friends have been patient and super understanding. Some friendships have suffered but I also don’t feel like I’ve lost anyone that important to me.”
Regan is open about his illness with friends and will be honest about things such as why he can’t go out if he’s going through a tough time. But he also knows that his illness has had an impact on his friendships. “You do lose a lot of friends due to having a mental illness like bipolar because one day you could be happy as Larry and then the next day you could be down in the dumps, not wanting to be here,” he adds.
It is possible to manage it. While bipolar disorder isn’t something that disappears, it is possible to manage it with treatment. Igbinoba has been in therapy for the past four months and finds it incredibly effective. She adds that physical activity is also helping her – “I recently joined a football team and I’m already feeling the benefits.”
Regan practices mindfulness and did a Mental Health First Aid course, which he says has really helped him. It’s taken him three years to find the medication that works for him. “It’s difficult to find the right medication,” he adds, “but when you do it does majorly help.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.