Breaking down barriers: living with Bipolar

Welcome to a life of bipolar! It’s amazing, and it sucks (insert irony emoji here).

I write this for one reason and one reason only: to broaden our awareness of the mental health conditions distributed throughout our society.

Somatic conditions are generally easy to recognise. Physical impairments, cancer, skin conditions, movement disorders, acquired injuries and amputations all (usually) cause clear physiological symptoms and side-effects. Mental health conditions however, have long been recognised as “silent conditions” in terms of presentation.

Sometimes they are very recognisable, for example when someone is experiencing an acute psychotic episode or displaying antisocial behaviours such as lying, stealing or – even worse – harming themselves or others. But often, mental health conditions can be completely missed, even by those closest to the individual.

In the 2017–18 Australian Census, up to 20.1% of Australians had a mental health condition, with 3.2 million Australians suffering from an anxiety disorder and just over 10% suffering from depression or depressive symptoms. These are astoundingly high rates! And yet, rates of employment of people with mental health conditions remained at over sixty percent.

This means there probably are people you work or study with who are privately battling conditions like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, addiction, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, perhaps even schizophrenia or psychopathology – and unless they tell you, you would probably never guess!

I know that because I live with bipolar disorder and most people would not know that unless I share it with them. Of course, they’re likely to notice a slight change in my behaviour from time to time. I recently came down from a hypomanic episode in which I had so much energy I was going out to exercise twice daily – bike riding, jogging, walking my dog, swimming, all without feeling an ounce of physical fatigue – and then I was still dancing around the house, doing squats in the supermarket, singing and talking to myself consistently. At other times, I become so angry and irritable that I get impatient, snappy, and withdrawn. But for the most part, my mood swings are controlled by medication and I have management strategies so I can live a normal life.

So, what does all this mean? It means that if someone is behaving strangely, withdrawing, or tells you they are struggling, don’t rush to any conclusions. They may be battling a mental health condition. Just assure them you are there for them, and make sure they have appropriate medical support if necessary.

It also means that if someone is brave enough to share that they have a mental health condition with you, don’t invalidate them. It’s a big step telling someone, and it is a gesture of trust. So show interest, compassion and understanding. Also ask questions if you need to (appropriate questions, of course, nothing too personal) – I know I’m always willing to share my experiences. After all, this is how we begin to break down social barriers: through active communication!

Information and resources

For more information about bipolar disorder, you can read What is bipolar mood disorder? on the Australian Government Department of Health site.

The Black Dog Institute and ReachOut sites also have information, resources, support options and research about Bipolar Disorder.

For 24/7 crisis support call Lifeline – 13 11 14. You can also access Lifeline via Web Chat – 7pm to midnight (AEST) or via Text – 0477 13 11 14 from 12pm to midnight (AEST).

SANE – 1800 18 7263 (Monday to Friday, 10am – 10pm). SANE Supports people living with complex mental health issues and the people who care about them. SANE’s support services are staffed by qualified counsellors who will provide you with phone and online counselling, support, information and referrals – or help facilitate a safe environment for peers to connect through the Forums. SANE is not a crisis service.

Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service – 1800 512 348 or Web Chat.

You can also read about what to expect if you call a helpline.