Beth Thomas is the Mentoring Scheme Manager and Safeguarding Director at Our Place Support in the West Midlands. She has a MSC in Child and Adolescent Mental Wellbeing. Here she shares her experience and insights on Bipolar Disorder, what has made a difference for her, and her hopes for change. Beth is part of the Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Network.
Today is World Bipolar Day, whilst a great way to raise awareness and challenge stigma, every day is an awareness day when you are living with bipolar disorder, whether you are manic or going through a depressive episode, or even experiencing a period of ‘stability’ however subjective that may be.
Whilst bipolar is a relatively common mood disorder that affects around 1 in every 100 people (NHS, 2023), on average it can take 10 years for a diagnosis. It can be an incredibly scary time, not understanding what is going on in your head, thinking you are going crazy, being gaslighted by professionals, or even gaslighting yourself.
For me, it was the constant cycle of trips to the GP when I was suicidal. I did all the things I was told I needed to do; counselling, swimming, taking a hot bath. I tried various different antidepressants which were meant to help, yet they only made my symptoms worse. Four years ago, after a particularly heavy breakdown, I ended up going private, and finally received an official diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
It was a long time coming, over 15 years in fact, and it was life changing.
At present there is a growing conversation in relation to psychiatric disorders, the biomedical model of mental health and the language used in these fields. As someone who spent many years overcoming childhood trauma, I understand and welcome the need for conversations around these topics. However, from a personal perspective I also cannot underestimate the positive impact that being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has had on my own mental health journey.
As bipolar is a mood disorder, monitoring my moods has been a vital way to understand any themes, triggers and when I need to start putting things in place to support an episode. I keep a calendar on my fridge and every morning put a sticker that reflects my mood(s) that day.
Bipolar certainly affects most, if not all aspects of an individual’s life. However, this doesn’t mean that you are defined by this disorder. For example, rather than using the term “I am bipolar”, I use the term “I have bipolar”. Such a slight change in terminology made such a big difference in my relationship with this mental health issue. It’s a part of me for sure but it does not define who I am.
Being aware of the terminology in relation to bipolar would have also really helped me in my struggle to gain relevant support. When I first went to the GP about having bipolar, I used the expression “One day I’m up, the next I’m down”. The GP instantly disregarded this statement and said “bipolar doesn’t work that way”. Which I later found out not to be true, for example, people can have mixed episodes where they experience both hypomania/mania and depressive symptoms at the same time or quickly one after the other. If I had an understanding of the correct terminology used in bipolar discourse, I might not have waited 15 years for a diagnosis.
When I was eventually diagnosed, I was told I would be referred to a group intervention for those living with bipolar. However, access to both child and adult mental health services are affected by long waiting lists which heavily impact recovery.
I was on the waiting list for two and a half years.
I was dubious to go at first given I had waited so long, but with some encouragement, I took the first step. One thing I underestimated was the impact of my fellow peers who were with me on the course. Having a space shared with others who are living with bipolar has helped with those feelings of isolation and being misunderstood. Whilst I have a great support network, it’s hard to understand how bipolar feels if you’re not living with it, being surrounded by people who “get it” was a great source of comfort. I also felt validated and completely supported by the psychologists leading the group intervention and who provided one to one sessions after the group had finished.
‘I will always have bipolar disorder and it’s a lifelong commitment to managing it, however it’s not a life sentence.’
Four years later, I have officially been discharged from psychiatric care, with both my psychiatrist and myself happy with all the progress that I have made since my diagnosis. Don’t get me wrong, I will always have bipolar disorder and it’s a lifelong commitment to managing it, however it’s not a life sentence. Along with my medication, having the right tools and strategies that are tailored to me and my needs have made all the difference. For example, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had a suicidal thought, something that I was plagued with over 20 years.
At a time where psychiatry and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar are under a microscope, the lived experiences of those with bipolar should be at the centre of such discussions. Whether it’s informing conversations around diagnosis; the language used in discourse; the relation it has to childhood trauma; the effectiveness of interventions; and the need for systemic change.
About the Author:
Beth Thomas is the Mentoring Scheme Manager and Safeguarding Director at Our Place Support in the West Midlands. She has a MSC in Child and Adolescent Mental Wellbeing. She is part of the Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Network. Follow her on Twitter @Beffy86 @ourplacesupport