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  • Anneka Barrett

What is Bipolar?


One of my goals when I started my consultancy was to help promote and empower conversations around mental health. I think the more we understand the impact that mental health conditions have on ourselves, our friends and family; the better we learn to support, understand and empower conversations around emotional well being. One key way that understanding can be gained is by a little learning on our part. This article is a general overview of what Bipolar disorder is and what it looks like.


“The point about manic depression or bipolar disorder, as it's now more commonly called, is that it's about mood swings. So, you have an elevated mood. When people think of manic depression, they only hear the word depression. They think one's a depressive. The point is, one's a manic-depressive.”

Steven Fry



Bipolar disorder affects approximately 1% of the world's population. It is not a great number of people and yet as disorders go Bipolar often allows people to live a relatively normal life most of the time, and to do so within their community. Bipolar used to be referred to as Manic Depression, they are one and the same. You may have heard of Bipolar disorder or Manic depression more than other personality disorders as there have been many high profile people who have come forward to speak about their experiences such as Carrie Fisher and Steve Fry. Both these authors have written/ spoken eloquently about their experiences.


Bipolar disorder is characterised by periods of very low and very high moods. These can last for days and sometimes weeks. The low moods are described as depression or a depressive episode. The highs are categorized as mania or hypomania. Generally we have a pretty good grasp on what depression is, but if you want to read more you can do so here. Mania and hypomania are probably new terms.


Mania is defined as an elevated mood that lasts for more than one week. It can be a state of great inspiration and drive, however mania is not always the ‘high’ to depression ‘low’. Often it is associated with feelings of irritability and an unwanted level of energy and alertness. Signs of someone being in this state are increased risk taking behaviours, such as speeding, excess drinking or drug taking to name some of the more common ones. People in a manic state often feel the need for less sleep, they can become fixated on tasks or people. Hypomania is defined with the same symptoms but the state will only last for a period of four days or less.


Bipolar disorder is very much unique to the individual. By this I mean how long and how often they may have these episodes. There is also a spectrum to the disorder from mild to severe. Irrespective of the severity someone may suffer, Bipolar can be fatal. Suicide and self harming behaviour rates amoungst those who have Bipolar disorder are high. Therefore popular awareness and understanding are so important.


Treatment after diagnosis is often a combination of medication and talking therapy. Within the UK cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is widely used within the NHS. Often it can take time to get the right balance with medication, and therapy can also take time to be effective.


Supporting someone with Bipolar disorder can be challenging. It can seem the foundations of your relationship change and you aren’t sure why. Being open, asking questions of their experiences can help you get a better sense of what it is like for them. Ask them what you can do to provide support. Often understanding what to look out for, (if they have an awareness of), when their state is changing can help both you and them to manage an episode.


The more we understand mental health issues, the more we spend time offering compassion and support to those who suffer, the more we move the narrative forward in a positive way. By spending a few moments of your day reading this you have done that. Thank you for being part of the change.


Remember, whatever you are going through you aren’t alone.


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