Demystifying bipolar

2016-05-31 06:00

With National Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day observed on Wednesday 25 May, the local health department set out to demystify the misconceptions about the disorder.

Many individuals living with a mental illness face a number of challenges – not only do they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease, but they are also challenged by the stereotypes and prejudices that result from the many misconceptions about mental illness.

Known globally as the 6th leading cause of disability in the world, bipolar disorder affects about 1% of South Africans.

In light of the awareness day, and the often silent blight undiagnosed sufferers and their families endure, greater awareness and education are needed to bust the many myths and associated stigmas that surround Bipolar Disorder, says Christiaan Verster, psychiatrist at Lentegeur Hospital.

Verster says because bipolar disorder is one of the more severe mental illnesses, it is often misunderstood. “Bipolar disorder sufferers experience a range of emotions – from depression and despair, to manic feelings of joy, enthusiasm and loss of inhibitions. Because it is not a black and white disorder, it is often hard to diagnose at first glance,” he says. “Diagnosing bipolar disorder is the crucial first step, and it’s a far more difficult issue to diagnose than most other mental illnesses. No blood test or brain scan can determine the presence of Bipolarity. Medical officers rely on detailed accounts of a patient’s mood, sleeping patterns, energy levels and behaviour from family members.”

Verster says many individuals believe that being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is a life sentence, but although the disorder is incurable, it is treatable and manageable. “The biggest misconception is that individuals suffering from bipolar disorder are not able to live ‘normal’ lives. However, with the correct medication, support and therapy, all bipolar disorder sufferers are able to live fulfilled and productive lives,” he explains.

It is crucial for both the patient and family members to do research and educate themselves about the illness,he adds.

“Another misconception is that medicine is the only way to control bipolar disorder. However, family and a support structure play an integral role in assisting individuals with bipolar disorder managing their illness. Regulating your life with scheduled times for eating, sleeping and exercise will assist sufferers in minimising the likelihood, duration or severity of an episode. It is also important to identify the red flags that may cause an episode. This will assist sufferers and their family to stay clear of such triggers.”

Although the cause of bipolar disorder is determined by genetic predisposition, Verster highlights that many young individuals who use substances such as marijuana and methamphetamine may induce the illness. “Substance abuse continues to play a major role in patients with mental illnesses, with approximately 50% of patients abusing substances such as marijuana, methamphetamine and alcohol. We often see young individuals with bipolar disorder who have a history of substance abuse. They may drink alcohol or abuse drugs to ease the uncomfortable symptoms of their mood swings,” explains Verster.

Verster notes that often sufferers don’t realise they have a problem. “If an individual is suffering from a mental health condition, initial treatment can be offered following the assessment of a health worker by simply visiting a local clinic. It is important to always be sensitive to the feelings of these individuals who may be living with a mental condition, and remember that it takes an expert to diagnose any illness,” he says. “If the diagnosis points to bipolar disorder, or another mental illness for that matter, treatment is always available. Treatment may include medication as well as short term individual or group counselling and support. The mental health nurse may consult with the regional psychologist or psychiatrist (or other members of the regional mental health team) when additional expertise is required.”

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