This article appeared in the July 2019 edition of Thrive Edinburgh

Hello, my name is David and I live with a mental health condition called bipolar. I’d like to tell you a little bit about bipolar, how it affects me and why I belong to a peer support group. You may have come across the term bipolar (or manic-depression as it used to be known as) in the media. Public figures like Stephen Fry and Mariah Carey have spoken about bipolar.

Bipolar is ‘a mental health condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another.’ During periods of depression people may feel miserable, tired, hopeless, anxious, not enjoy hobbies anymore, find it difficult to concentrate and sleep nearly all day. Bipolar depression is more than having a bad day; depressed people may spend several months in hospital or in extreme circumstances, attempt suicide. The flip side of depression is mania when people may feel euphoric, energetic, sleep very few hours, lose their inhibitions, become paranoid, make poor decisions, spend money excessively and lose touch with reality for extended periods of time. Please speak to a mental health professional if you’d like more information about bipolar.

Before an individual receives a diagnosis of bipolar they will have experienced a period of elevated mood. These (hypo)manic episodes can seriously affect people’s physical and emotional health, possibly landing them in hospital. People’s relationships with their family and friends are often strained during episodes of severe depression or mania. People who are unwell can say hurtful things that can’t be taken back easily. It’s not uncommon for patients who’ve lost insight to resent being put in hospital by a family member or friend, potentially leading to relational breakdown. However, this is certainly not always the case and many relationships flourish as recovery begins to take hold.

When I was given my diagnosis, the psychiatrist told me to take medication to reduce the frequency and severity of mood swings. The medication does keep me stable for longer periods of time which is greatly valued. However, the tablets didn’t really help me come to terms with being diagnosed with a serious, lifelong and stigmatising condition. I also needed help from people to deal with the trouble I’d caused during my hypomanic episodes, to repair broken relationships and to work through the huge sense of shame I felt. Counselling and other talking therapies helped me to process traumatic past events and I started attending a recovery-focussed, peer support group.

The Lothian Bipolar Self-help Group has been a real lifesaver for me; I’ve learned so much about self-management and what it’s like to live with bipolar. Discovering other people had been through similar life experiences and that I could still achieve a reasonable quality of life with bipolar was huge for me. I’ve also been able to give something back to the group by sharing my own experiences as a peer. There’s something special about belonging to a community of people who support each other in both the good times and the not-so-good times. All of the group’s facilitators live with bipolar, so they understand many of the challenges group members face. Attendance figures of more than 2,500 since 2010 show that many people have benefited from attending group meetings and social events. There are similar bipolar self-help groups in every NHS Board region of Scotland, supported by Bipolar Scotland.

Marcus attends our 18-30 Group, established specifically to support young adults living with bipolar and their carers. Marcus has written about his experiences below.

Before I went along to the 18-30 group, I only knew one other person with bipolar disorder, and I had received a diagnosis a couple of years before. Although, the stigma around mental health is definitely decreasing, coming to terms with a diagnosis, knowing how to talk about bipolar, and trying to prevent the disruption of future episodes, still comes with its challenges. I think facing a mental health problem can be particularly bewildering when you’re young and haven’t got so much experience of previous episodes and recoveries to look back on. The group has helped me to understand the condition much better, to know that long periods of good mental health are possible with it, and to meet other people with similar experiences.

We’ve covered all sorts of topics from smartphone apps to how bipolar is portrayed, good sleep hygiene, addiction, employment rights, and much more. I’ve even had the opportunity to facilitate a couple of sessions of my own, bringing along some notes and questions for us to mull over. While it might seem like a big step to come along to a group like ours, it’s a very supportive, relaxed environment – we have a hot drink and a chat each month, and there are other social events, such as our Christmas meal out, and some semi- competitive ping pong. I’ve made some real friends at the group and I feel we all look out for each other. Overall, the group is something I look forward to each month and unique in its focus on young people with bipolar and our distinct challenges. I’m very lucky not to have had a serious episode for over three years and the 18-30 group has been a big part in that, giving me tools to stay well and helping me to feel optimistic about the future.

All adults affected by bipolar including partners, friends and family are welcome to attend ‘main group’ meetings on the first Thursday of each month. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 are also welcome to attend 18-30 Group gatherings, usually on the last Monday of each month (apart from December).