Bipolar mood disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is more than just a clinical term to describe people who suffer from mood swings, from mania to depression. It’s a serious mental illness that can make those affected feel isolated. Understanding and support is key in helping those with bipolar.

Clinical psychologist Marilyn Davis Shulman says it is important for bipolar patients to understand their condition and make the necessary adjustments. “Part of the treatment is to look at your lifestyle and have a look at what the stressors are and learn to manage those.”

Support groups play a vital role in coping with the illness. Linda Trump, who heads up the Johannesburg Bipolar Support Association in Parkhurst, says until a person with bipolar goes to a support group, they think they are the only ones suffering. Realising they are not separate from the rest of the population helps with their feelings of loneliness. “These groups give people an open forum to chat and gain a better understanding of the condition. Speakers are also often invited to share their knowledge and thoughts, which all helps.”

Because bipolar has episodes of mania, which sets it apart from depression, therapy and the right dosage of medication are both necessary to help bipolar sufferers manage their illness. Although bipolar disorder cannot be prevented, early recognition of bipolar warning signs and seeing your doctor regularly can allow you to monitor your mood and medications and keep the illness from escalating.

A facilitator at Schizophrenia & Bipolar Disorders Support Group, SABDA, Beryl Allen, says her weekly group at Tara hospital provides a social outlet where the group can interact with each other. Besides the craftwork they do, the group loves talking and just sitting outside.

This is a social life for me

One of the outpatients at SABDA’s weekly group, Mike Jeffreys, says the support groups give him something to do to occupy his time. “This is a social life for me, we are mixing with people, and for the most part they are nice people. It’s nice to have that environment.”

Another outpatient, Mike Smith, says: “I get to talk to people who also have the same mental disability, I also enjoy making and selling cards that I do here at the group.”

If we could sort the trauma out we would have a much healthier society

Jeffreys says: “Most of my children and their partners accept me for who I am. I was 32 when I got ill…my oldest son keeps track of my finances and it is useful to have that sort of back up.” But he admits it is not easy on relationships. “It’s difficult to get a companion for the long term when you have this condition because they find your demands to high for them or they find your moods too much to handle.” In Shulman’s opinion, trauma underpins everything. “Around 70% of psychiatric patients have a trauma base. It wires the brain accordingly…In my experience I see the fragmented or ruptured attachment always as a precursor of any of the mental disorders.”
Shulman strongly believes that if “we could sort the trauma out we would have a much healthier society.” Therapy also helps patients with their feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. There is a lot of shame and humiliation around mental illness. What people don’t understand they judge and this adds to the stigma of bipolar. Loneliness is breaking our hearts Recent studies show that loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Studies of elderly people and social isolation prove that those without enough social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. Social isolation also impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. We are social creatures by nature and need human contact. People with mental illness are often rejected because they are different and often find themselves in a very lonely place. But support groups and therapists give them a space where they can feel accepted. Something we often take for granted.

– By Tanja Bencun, feature producer