Tag Archives: mental health

Combating the side-effects of bipolar medication that affects your appearance

This post turned out to be a bit longer than I planned, so if you just want the advice, scroll down and read the italic bits. If you want to understand better, can relate or generally enjoy my self-deprecating humour, please continue. 

It seems that the side-effects of psychiatric medication is something that isn’t discussed enough by medical professionals. In my younger, more naive years I thought that if the doctor didn’t say anything about side-effects, it meant that there weren’t any. Until weird things started happening to my body and I eventually had to take to Google. What you learn very quickly is that everyone experiences side-effects differently, and something that I can’t possibly imagine is true, happens to you.

There are a few side-effects that are relatively common across most psychiatric meds: weight gain, serious fatigue, skin conditions, nausea, gastrointestinal issues to name a few. For some people, most if not all of these symptoms disappear after a while, but weight gain and fatigue usually lasts (especially with anti-psychotics). When I started Lithium almost exactly a year ago, my family couldn’t understand why my doctor hadn’t put me on it a long time ago. Neither could I really, until my doctor warned me about possible kidney failure, thyroid disease, blood tests, dehydration, balancing my salt intake and possible Lithium toxicity. She left out the ‘smaller, less important’ side-effects that I first thought was in my head until it became completely abnormal: hair loss and acne. Along with weight gain, these are the side-effects I want to talk about.

I guess that doctors don’t consider discussing the side-effects that affect your physical appearance as important since they don’t happen to everyone, and aren’t life threatening, but they definitely have a big impact on your already fragile and depressed self-confidence.

1. Weight gain

Of the three, this side-effect is the most common, and caused by most anti-psychotics (except Geodon), some anti-depressants, and most mood stabilisers (like Lithium) except for Lamotrigine. For more info about specific meds and weight gain, go check out Mayo clinic.

Get support

I can only tell you what worked and didn’t work for me. When I was first put on Seroquel (anti-psychotic), I picked up 8kg in a very short time. I didn’t even realise how much I’d picked up before it was too late. I tried going off Seroquel but I could feel myself slipping badly. Later I tried switching to Geodon, but it was extremely expensive and my dose was probably not high enough, so I had the most wonderful hypomanic episode followed by and epic crash that landed me in the hospital again with a new psychiatrist. I had to accept that Seroquel was here to stay. I joined a weigh-loss programme that conveniently had a branch at my offices. It took me a YEAR of mostly being hangry and wanting to cry when I walked past chocolates, but I lost 10kg. I did cheat over weekends, otherwise I would have died. So I was finally on my goal weight; not skinny, but not overweight. I should have continued with the programme but didn’t, and so picked up 5kg again. It was okay though, I had learned a lot and could monitor my eating better.

So my advice is, join some sort of weight support group where someone can help you plan meals, where people keep each other accountable, where you are forced to weigh yourself once a week, and where people keep each other motivated. You don’t have to tell your bipolar story to everyone, but at least tell the person leading the group what medication you are on and how it causes (in my case) sugar and carb cravings and makes you feel like you are ALWAYS hungry. And STICK with it once you’ve reached your goal weight to stay there. 

Consider a possible medical intervention

And NO, I am not talking about diet pills. That shit is bad for you. I am talking about the anti-depressant Wellbutrin. Wellbutrin is also sold as Zyban and helps people to quit smoking. It is also known for making people lose weight. Lithium causes weight gain too, but I started Wellbutrin at the same time and since then I have lost, and kept off, about 6kg in a relatively short time without consciously trying. It is only now that I have lost the weight and am back on my goal weight, that I am making an effort to keep it off. I’ve experienced it as pretty miraculous. Word of warning though, Wellburin doesn’t work for everyone. It either works or it doesn’t. It is also known to bring on (hypo)mania, which is why I am currently only on 150mg and not 300mg. It is also pretty expensive and not all health insurances cover it. Unfortunately there also isn’t a generic at the moment. So seriously discuss it with your doctor first, especially if your are taking a combination of other stuff. To me and others I know it’s been well worth it.

Exercise

I put it here because I feel I have to, not because I practise what I preach. Personally I am not a fan and apart from occasionally walking my dog a block or 2, I haven’t exercised in months. BUT it does help with weigh-loss and general health etc. There is loads of info out there if this is your thing. Just remember weight-loss is more diet than exercise and just because you exercise doesn’t mean you can eat what you want if you want to lose weight.

2. Acne 

I had problems with my skin all through my younger years, so I was pretty happy to grow up and have that stop, mostly. And then it just flared up like crazy! Especially along my jaw line where I never use to get spots before. I couldn’t understand it. I’d been on birth control to help me with moods and hormones for many years, but even on that my skin looked like crap. So I changed brands, and changed again. It was only after a few months that I looked at Lithium side-effects again, and there it was. Acne.

I didn’t want to go on antibiotics unnecessarily and there was NO WAY I was going on Accutane. Not that I can now that I have a mental illness diagnosis anyway, but that shit is BAD. Thinking about it, no medication side-effects has ever been as bad as that. So anyway, no matter how desperate you are, don’t use Accutane.

Once I moved back to my sleepy town, my mom suggested that I go for a chemical peel. She did it when she was in her 30s and swears that’s why she looks younger than all her friends who are younger than her, and it is much cheaper here than in the city. Problem was I really hate facials. The minute they put a warm cloth or steam machine over your face I  feel like I’m drowning. I was also scared that it was going to look like someone threw acid in my face. But desperate times… I wasn’t going out because even thick make-up couldn’t cover up how hideous I looked. Something had to be done.

Luckily the girl that now does my chemical peels is really sweet and professional and the whole process is not at all what I expected. They start you off with a very light peel and increase the intensity as your face gets more use to it. She also told me to switch to dermatologically recommended wash and cream with no perfumes or funny things as my skin is crazy dry. And it’s working! I’ve gone for 3 peals every 4 weeks and I look like myself again! I’ve always been vigilant about my skin routine, but now I’m SUPER vigilant and will continue to go for the treatments as long as I can afford it. The place I go to uses Placecol products, but I’m sure there are other good products out there too.

My doctor also lowered my Lithium dose a bit because my blood levels were too high, and that probably helped too.

3. Hair loss

I’m sure you could gather that the acne situation was really bad. And it was horrible. But the hair loss! Nothing could have prepared me for that.

I’ve had a beautiful, glossy, wavy mane of hair for the largest part of my life. I love my hair. It has been every colour and style under the sun (except blue and pink), but now that I qualify as an adult, I’ve kept it pretty long. I don’t have to style or use product or even blow dry my hair, and I barely comb or was it. I LOVE my hair.

Obviously long hair falls out a lot, so I’m use to that, but then I started noticing that the hairballs from my brush and the shower were getting larger and larger. I thought it was all in my head at first (no pun intended), but it got worse and worse. Making a ponytail I could actually feel a marked difference. It made no sense, this sudden hair loss problem. And then I went back to the Lithium booklet. It was the only thing that made sense and it pissed me off severely. The worse part is, there isn’t really anything you can do about it, except lower you Lithium dose and cross your fingers that it stops.

And luckily it did. Surprisingly, it also started growing back! The only stupid thing now is that I have these little Alfalfa hairs sticking up all over my head, and what my hairdresser recently referred to as ‘bum fluff’ (ridiculous little corkscrew curls) that are frizzing on either side of my forehead.

I haven’t been to hairdresser in almost a year, because I didn’t want to explain why it looks like a child got to my hair with a razor, but then I made friends with a friend of my brother’s who I didn’t mind telling the bipolar Lithium hair loss story to. Once you’ve gotten your hair to grow back, there isn’t much you can do about it, but she basically recommends:

  • Don’t touch your hair at all, because the baby hair is fine and by trying to get it flat or uncurled you just pull the hair out again.
  • After you’ve blow dried your hair, you can set it with cold air (didn’t last long for me).
  • Don’t straighten the baby hair (in my case my bum fluff) because the flat iron will also damage it and pull it out.

Someone also recommended that I use horse shampoo, but I haven’t found any yet, and I have also started using folic acid but not long enough to know if it makes any difference.

 

I hope that there is someone somewhere who has looked long and hard for some answers on how to just look like yourself again and who will find them here. If you have any other tips on psych med weight, acne and hair loss PLEASE share. The struggle is real people and I don’t want to have to choose between looking good and feeling good, because that’s just not fair!

*Please discuss any and all medication adjustments with your doctor. Don’t be stupid and make things worse for yourself. NEVER just stop your meds cold turkey on your own. You think taking meds have bad side-effects? You don’t want to go through withdrawal!

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Challenging stereotypes of mental illnesses – when to let it slide

I am very open about the fact that I have bipolar disorder. I was sure that revealing this to most people would help them understand me and my situation better. Unfortunately, that is not always true. I am usually also the first one to make a noise if someone describes a mental illness incorrectly, uses stereotypes or make fun of mental illness. Turns out people also don’t really like to be corrected, or being told their joke is not funny at all but actually ableist. Most of the time I don’t really care if people get pissed with me; it is my duty to educate; but occasionally it can cause trouble for me. I’ve had to learn the hard way that like most things in life, there is a time and a place. And WORK is not the right place.

I have a client who’s husband is a psychiatrist. The other day we chatted about her life. her family, how her husband is always on call, and naturally about psychiatric patients. She tells me, “Yes, some people are really incredibly depressed they can’t do anything! But you know who’s the worse? The bipolar patients! They seem to be constantly changing their minds, calling for a doctor and then telling him not to come.” Or something like that. Honestly, I wasn’t really listening anymore, because my mind was racing back and forth, ‘do I tell her, don’t I tell her?’ You probably won’t understand what a victory it was for me to say nothing, but it was. ‘Oh really? How interesting!’ was basically my response, while thinking ‘I wish I could tell you the truth and see how you react.’ It just proves again how ridiculous it is when people say things like ‘You have depression?! But you look so happy!’ (I actually got that while IN A PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC) Like my diagnosis is stuck to my forehead. So I did not correct my client. She pays money for my services and so I kept my mouth shut, even though I was ready to give her a half hour lecture.

People are ignorant and often not interested to learn, but I guess before I was diagnosed I didn’t know much about mental illness either because it just wasn’t part of my life. Not everyone is trying to be an offensive idiot, and sometimes letting it slide, even if it is hard, is the right thing to do.

 

Prescription medication vs herbal remedies

I’m almost a little scared to write about this, because it seems like these to very distinctive camps simply cannot agree. But in this post I don’t want to discuss which one is better than the other, or what I prefer. I just want to bring some facts to everyone’s attention, and hopefully give some insight. I’ll do my best to keep my personal opinion to myself.

Most people who prefer to uses herbal stuff are all-natural, free range, organic kind of people. The whole thing, as I understand it, is about not putting anything that the earth didn’t produce itself, into your body. I think. I respect that. The prescription drugs we take to keep our brains under control can have nasty side-effects and while they are good for your brain, they’re not always so good for your body. But is herbal remedies really that much better, just because it is only made from plants and things?

My major problem (and hopefully the last of my opinions) with herbal remedies is that it leaves waaaaay too much room to be swindled out of your money with nothing to show for it. A quick google search shows you that you can use anything from lavender to kava to a whole lot of unpronounceable herbs to ‘cure’ your depression. And these drugs are not tested by the FDA. Often, or dare I say most of the time, no studies were performed on these remedies, or the sample size was very tiny. So we can’t even know what the side-effects are most of the time, until we experience it. If you take a remedy with say hibiscus, your whole oral cavity can swell up and you wouldn’t have known that it would happen. At least when I took anti-convulsants, I knew of the possibility that a rash could develop.

The other major problem is that herbal remedies aren’t usually tested to find out how they interact with other herbal remedies, or western medicine. Maybe someone can help me with this one (honest question because I really don’t know): I’ve never used St. John’s Wart, mostly because the leaflets in my medicine boxes says it can cause a bad reaction. My question is if St. John’s Wart comes with the same warning label? How about its interaction with ibuprofen, paracetamol, codeine etc? Is it safe?

I understand why someone would want to use herbal remedies instead of medication for things like insomnia, anxiety, depression, energy etc. Heck, I used to use them for anxiety and insomnia. They aren’t addictive, for one. And maybe some of them actually work and are safer. I didn’t experience any side-effects from the ones I tried. But then again I didn’t experience any effects at all!

So here’s what I’m saying: Don’t dis western prescription medication. They have been tried and tested and refined. Sure, they can be bad for you, but there is at least some science behind them. You can talk to various specialists and while they won’t agree 100%, they will agree on the principles. And don’t start the ‘big pharma’ debate where I can hear you. If it wasn’t for medication I wouldn’t be typing here, I’d be dead by my own hand.

If you prefer herbal remedies, that is your prerogative, and if you have found something that has been proven safe AND effective, please let me know so I can check it out. But before you stick anything into your mouth, whether herbal or not, DO YOUR RESEARCH. And that’s not just checking the first site you can find on google. Find at least three corroborating  sources. TALK TO AN EXPERT, whether traditional alternative therapy practitioners, or western trained doctors, and make sure you find out about possible side-effects and interactions. MONITOR CHANGES TO YOUR BODY, just like you would with anything else you take. DON’T GRAB THE FIRST THING YOU SEE, because more expensive is not necessarily better. CHECK THAT THE MANUFACTURER IS CREDIBLE.

Don’t be a sheep and don’t be taken for a fool either. No matter what you choose to treat yourself with, be sure to check the facts and get your bang for your buck.

How mental illness is good for the environment

Let’s face it, in recent years, and maybe not so recent, us humans have been abusing and destroying our beautiful planet. My country is classified as a ‘developing’ one, and our government is incompetent at best. So when it comes to all things environmental, despite having brilliant scientists, I would say that we are generally a bit behind.

So when we had electricity shortages a few years ago, and then again a few years after that, no one was prepared. And when we went into a massive drought, where some areas have now been declared as disaster areas, no one was prepared. ‘Yeah, so what?’ I hear you thinking. ‘What has this got to do with bipolar or mental health?’

It’s simple. In trying to be more vigilant by finding ways I can save resources, I have found that due to my mental illness, I already do! Let’s look at saving water, for example: when I’m depressed I save loads of water from not showering or washing my hair. I’m not proud of this, but if you’ve been depressed you’d know that personal hygiene is really too much of an effort. I mostly just swap one pair of pajamas for another pair, so I very rarely have to do laundry. And even when I do, I just don’t. I certainly don’t touch the dishes (if I even eat), and my mushy brain completely forgets to water my few pot plants. The only water I really use, is for drinking, brushing my teeth (the one thing I always do) and flushing the toilet.

As for electricity, no need to turn the lights on when you’re sleeping most of the time. I don’t use much hot water, or big appliances. My food intake is normally restricted to pizza delivery, ramen noodles, bread and cheese or a meal replacement shake. And lots of chocolate. So no using stoves and ovens here!

And my carbon footprint? Well as we know many people with mental illness are unemployed or work from home. I now fall in the second category, which means I might leave the house once a day to buy groceries or see family (I would love to add ‘and go to the gym’ but that’s not exactly happening right now, or when I’m depressed).

So there you go. If your depression, anxiety, medication side-effects or whatever your brain problem is makes you behave in a similar way that I do, always remind yourself that even though you feel like trash, you are helping mother earth to survive. Who knows, maybe that is our collective goal as the mentally ill. When the planet is in trouble, we get sick so lighten its burden and help it get better, if that makes sense. That’s what I’m going to tell myself the next time I’m horribly depressed, anyway: The planet needs me!

 

*This post is meant to be a bit tongue in the cheek-ish, so if you are an environmentalist reading here, please don’t be mean and bury me under links to piles of scientific research. I might have a panic attack and slip into a deep depression. Or get mad and go into bipolar rage, and you really wouldn’t want that.*

Am I being bipolar, ‘normal’ or just lazy?

From the forums, other blogs and articles I read, I think many a bipolar diagnosed person asks themselves this question. I certainly do, every bloody day. Since all the major changes in my life happened, it’s like I can’t quite seem to pull myself together.

The first month or so after my move it didn’t really matter, because I was okay financially, and I was happy to take the time I needed to recuperate, sort out my living arrangements and set up my business. My deadline was 2 May, because we had a lot of public and school holidays here in April. Until then I wouldn’t really care sleeping until noon (or past it) and just doing a little bit of work every day. And now, after the deadline came and went?

I gave up my 50mg Seroquel for sleep a few weeks ago and while sleeping was obviously hard in the beginning, now I don’t struggle so much and I can actually wake up at 8:00 or so. The problem is, I don’t WANT to. It’s way past noon on a Thursday and I am actually embarrassed to admit that I am still in my pyjamas. I have to start actively promoting my business which means handing out flyers and phoning people, but I just can’t do it. I am completely overwhelmed by the idea of interacting with strangers. Yet, on the other hand I am freaking out because I kind of need to start making money soon.

I’m pretty sure that the ‘oh crap what if this fails and I lose everything?’ part is ‘normal’. I’m sure that, for an introvert, anxiety about putting yourself out there and talking to strangers is ‘normal’ too. But what about the complete mental block? And feeling like I can’t breathe at the mere thought? What about the refusal each morning to wake up, shower and leave my house? Despite the fact that I (think) I WANT to work and stop feeling like I’m a lazy, unambitious, blob of a person doing nothing and going nowhere in life?

And the guilt, OH the guilt! I do nothing, yet I feeling incredibly guilty about it, so I totally beat myself up about being lazy, but it doesn’t make me get up and moving. So do I cut myself some slack and spend the day in bed without feeling guilty, or do I pick myself up by my bootstraps and just freakin get over it?

Am I being bipolar or lazy? That is forever the question.

Admitting when you need help

Earlier this week I went to see a new psychiatrist. Naturally I was sceptical but it didn’t take her long to win my trust. Her assessment of me was very thorough, she is open to new treatment options and seems to care (or at least pretends convincingly that she does). Her suggestion was that I go to a clinic to receive in-patient treatment while we adjust medication and to give me some space to just be without having to manage myself in the world, as this is more exhausting than most people would think. I agreed and will be going in next week.

Some people I have spoken to seem to confuse the reason I’m going, as I am not suicidally depressed or running around hypomanic off my rocker. They think I’m going in for a little rest, or a nice vacation funded by medical aid. While that is true, I will be doing a lot of resting and sleeping and switching off from society, that’s not the whole point. The reason I’m going is exactly because I am not suicidally depressed or hypomanic. Not yet, at least. Or rather, not at the moment. The reason I agreed to in-patient treatment is because I want to PREVENT things going too far.

For the first time since I was diagnose I’m actually pre-empting this thing. I can do that now, because I am more self-aware than I use to be. I can recognise a crisis creeping closer before it actually bitch slaps me through the face. I might be feeling fine right now. Right now going to a hospital and putting my life on hold feels like such a silly idea. I clearly don’t need it. But the reality is that I don’t know how I’m going to feel tomorrow. Or this evening for that matter. It’s become clear to me that I probably have some rapid cycling going on and that is part of what I want to figure out while I’m in the clinic. I can have my meds adjusted without having to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to make it through a day at work. I can talk to a psychologist every day if I want to. I can get focussed treatment and don’t have to drag it out for months.

It doesn’t mean that it’s not scary. And I think that’s what people who think I’m going on vacation don’t understand. There will be intense group therapy, one on one therapy, new drug regimes, routine, all in a foreign environment where I will likely be sharing a room with strangers who snore. But it’s not my first rodeo, so I know I’ll be fine.

I’ve taken the first steps; admitting I need help and accepting it. It can only get better from here.

A history of the Madhouse documentary

I watched this BBC documentary today called A history of the Madhouse. Be warned that it is not for the sensitive viewer and if you don’t know much about the history of asylums and the treatments they performed, you might be quite shocked and horrified. I was, even with my limited knowledge. Dorms with 32 beds, every inch of the place locked up, padded sound proof cells, abuse by nurses, early forms of ECTs with no anesthesia, insulin treatment, lobotomies. The poor crazies (and actually not so crazies) at the time really got it in the 30s to 50s especially. Some went in for one week of observation and only left 5 years, 20, 30 years later. Locked up and isolated from the world. Most of these people weren’t even mentally ill, just unwanted or problematic. Patients were not seen as people but as research projects. Many died from lobotomies and insulin treatment that sent them into comas to ‘reset’ their brains. We look back on these treatments and regard them as barbaric. Others, like a more refined form of ECT and Lithium, are still used today. Some of us owe our lives to the poor people who were subjected to these atrocities year after year.

I think of the private clinic that I frequented and cannot even imagine how it must have been to be locked up in an asylum. Margaret Thatcher can be thanked for them finally being closed in Britain. Problem was, the community care everyone was raving about didn’t really work since most of these poor people didn’t have a vocation or basic life skills. Many of them ended up on the streets or at the Salvation Army, which I suppose is better than the streets at least. Thatcher’s plan was to destigmatise mental illness, to have society view it as illness rather than madness. How she must be turning in her grave to see that these prejudices still exist world wide.

The documentary made me wonder, will some of the treatments that we are subjected to today also be viewed as barbaric 50, 70 years from now? Will people be appalled about how we’ve been medicating our lives away just to function within society’s norms? Or will what is done now be considered as ground breaking, pathing the the way for more specific and sophisticated treatment? I know that some research is being done at the Mayo Clinic about isolating genes and then determining your exact bipolar type so that treatment can be tailored for you needs. But how long is this going to take? Another 50 years? We can only hope that it’s sooner, since those of us with mental health issues are not having such a bloody good time of it.

There is hope, I suppose, one never knows. In the meantime I am extremely grateful to the people who had to subjected to life threatening and debilitating treatment like lab rats, so that I can sleep a bit sounder, or function a bit better.

The Oscar Pistorius trial, mental health and the ignorance of the masses

I actually can’t believe that I am writing about Oscar Pistorius and his trial. I have been avoiding any reports on it because the way people have been treating it as entertainment is enough to enrage me. Unfortunately it’s been nearly impossible as everywhere you go it’s on TV, radio, front pages of magazines and newspapers, twitter, facebook and in every conversation. If you’re not South African, you can read all about the trial online if you want to. However, this post is not about the actual trial. It’s about him going for psychiatric observation and people’s reaction to it. And basically me ranting over how stupid people can be.

Some background: About a month ago Oscar went for psychiatric observation to determine whether he suffers from a mental illness, specifically GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) and whether or no he could distinguish right from wrong. The report came in and it was determined that Oscar did not suffer from mental illness at the time. However, what most people neglect to add when they talk about this around the water cooler is that after the incidence he suffers from PTSD and is of committing suicide.

Let me just state up front that I am not condoning murder. What he did was WRONG, no matter how you look at it. What gets to me is how people are now saying, “Ja so he’s not mad hey! chuckle chuckle chuckle” and “apparently he’s going to kill himself now, chuckle chuckle chuckle.” I know I am over sensitive when it comes to issues surrounding mental health. I find these kind of statements incredibly upsetting and insensitive. I suffer from mental illness after all and the only one allowed to call me mad, is ME. Suicide is serious. PTSD is serious. Murder is serious. Human suffering, even when broadcast onto international television, is REAL. What these statements demonstrate is that the masses, your average person, still thinks that mental illness is not real. That it is a joke and something reserved for the crazies in institutions who have to wear straitjackets and have to be locked in padded rooms. They see it as something removed from themselves, while they are surrounded by people suffering from mental illness every day.

On the one hand I feel like I need to speak up when I hear things like this being said, but on the other hand, what is the point of fighting a losing battle, at work, with people who are too set in their ways to change their minds and of then opening myself up to being talked about in the same way? It just blows my mind that people can still be so ignorant in this day and age. I sometimes feel like I’m just screaming this silent scream over and over again.

Any thoughts on how to tackle this problem?

The benefits of support groups

Like most, I found being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder completely bewildering. On the one hand it was a relief to finally find out that my life was coming apart at the seams not because I was a weak person who couldn’t cope with everyday life, but because I had an illness that had become unmanageable. But even though I had the diagnoses, and read everything I could lay my hands on, I felt that there was a key piece of the puzzle missing that made it impossible for me to really understand how it all fitted together. At the time it felt like I had to somehow fit my ‘self’ into the illness, instead of the illness into my ‘self’. I tried to discuss it with my psychologist, but to me it didn’t feel like he thought that I really had Bipolar Disorder. I might have only imagined that, but regardless I couldn’t talk about it. I eventually stopped seeing him because I didn’t feel like we had anything left to discuss. I felt lost, alone and unable to communicate or figure out what it meant to have Bipolar Disorder.

I had heard about the support group in my area, but hadn’t had the courage to attend. I was anxious about going by myself, but had no one to go with me. My family lives very far away and at the time I didn’t have any other support, so I had to talk to someone. Walking into my first meeting was absolutely terrifying. I wasn’t at the point where I openly discussed my illness yet, and I felt embarrassed and way too vulnerable. I didn’t know what to expect and was sure that the people were going to judge me. Luckily I was wrong.

These days I actually look forward to going to group and even when I don’t really feel like it, I go anyway (that’s usually when you need it the most). I have met some amazing and inspirational people and have made great friends that I meet with outside the meetings. Being able to talk to people who can identify with what I go through, think the way I do and have experienced the same frustrations I have has really made life easier. Although I believe that Psychologists have their place, and I still see my Psychiatrist monthly, attending a support group has helped me a lot more than therapy (in terms of understanding and dealing with my illness). I know that I now have people I can call on who will understand and a place to go where I can share my load, get help and advice and even laugh at myself. I also find it very rewarding to be able to pass what I have learned on to others.

Research has proven over and over  again that support groups have many benefits for their participants, whether it is for mental health issues, weight loss, addiction, chronic illness etc. These groups don’t have to be led by professionals in psychology or psychiatry and are more often led by ‘regular’ people who share the condition and therefore know what other participants go through. I found this quotation that sums it up:

“Mutual support groups, involving little or no cost to participants, have a powerful effect on mental and physical health… The psychological and physical health importance of this diffuse community is striking. The self-help movement, both in face-to-face and virtual arenas, has tremendous therapeutic potential.” (from American Psychologist feature article “Who Talks?: The Social Psychology of Illness Support Groups” by K. P. Davison, J. W. Pennebaker, & S.S. Dickerson, (55) 2, pp. 205-217, 2000.)

According to the Mayo Clinic, support groups hold the following benefits for its members:

  • Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
  • Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
  • Improving coping skills and sense of adjustment
  • Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
  • Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
  • Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
  • Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
  • Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options.

For more information read this article. It’s about stress management, but I think the principles are the same.

Thanks to the Internet we don’t have to only rely on face-to-face support groups. Some people don’t have groups in their areas, some prefer to stay anonymous and others would rather express themselves in writing or to strangers. You can even belong to a few different groups if you want. The point is that these days it is easier to find a support group or forum that will suit your particular needs.

I’m sure support groups don’t work for anyone and it might take a few tries before you find something that works for you, but I would definitely recommend that you give it a try.

I only have a few support groups listed under Useful Resources, but please share yours and I will add it to the list.

Bipolar Disorder: The ‘flu’ of mental health?

I recently read something about celebrities and Bipolar Disorder where Bipolar Disorder was being described as a ‘fashionable diagnosis’ and ‘the flu of mental health’. I practically blew my top. This after hearing people say things like ‘everyone is bipolar these days’, ‘the weather is so bipolar’, ‘I think being bipolar is awesome’.

Generally, I have learned to keep my cool when I am faced with ignorant statements like these. Sometimes I would come out of my Bipolar closet and take time to educate the uneducated, but often I just don’t respond to a statement like that. However, hearing the chronic mental illness that my broken mind cannot get rid of being compared to the flu (I mean, FLU), really hit a nerve. But before I turn this post into a rant against those who I deem to be the ignorant and uneducated, it is worth looking at WHY a statement like that would even be made.

In this article about myths about Bipolar Disorder, the myth right at the top reads:’ Bipolar Disorder is a rare condition.’ A survey that  was done found that at least 2.4% of the world’s population  have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, (245 million people) with less than half of those diagnosed actually receiving treatment. Although the percentage is actually higher than one would think, the reality is that about 4% of the world population suffers from Depression, which is also the second-leading cause of disability worldwide. We should also keep in mind that these statistics don’t include populations that still deny the very existence of Depression. What about Schizophrenia? 1.1% of the population. If you look at how many people are affected worldwide by these and other mental illnesses, it’s clear that it’s a much bigger problem than most people realise. I can’t help but wonder why there is still so much stigma attached to these illnesses.

Those who say that Bipolar Disorder is the flu of mental health are obviously not referring to statistics, and they might be snarky about it, but in a way they are not wrong. It is true that more people have Bipolar Disorder now than ever before. This is simply because the illness cannot be cured. So it makes sense that not as many people with Bipolar Disorder die as are being diagnosed daily, especially since the general public is now more aware than before and health professionals have become better at diagnosing it. Personally I’m a word person, but to me this sounds like simple mathematics.

Thanks to celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and more recently Demi Lovato coming out of the bipolar closet, the illness has received more media coverage in recent years. You just have to search ‘Celebrities with Bipolar Disorder’ to find a whole list. What we ‘regular people’ have to keep in mind is the kind of lifestyle that celebrities lead. With this I don’t mean drugs and parties and alcohol (although that is part of the lifestyle in many cases). The typical lifestyle of an entertainer includes a lot of travelling across different time zones, lack of sleep, high stress, high pressure, ridiculous work hours, sporadic eating and other things that would cause problems to the most stable person’s mental health. Place someone with just the smallest predisposition to Bipolar Disorder in a life like that and chances are they’ll get it, and struggle immensely with recovery and becoming stable. An unstructured and unhealthy lifestyle like that is a recipe for disaster if you suffer from Bipolar Disorder.

One of the big and pressing questions is whether Bipolar Disorder was previously under-diagnosed or is now over-diagnosed. Since it took me, doctors and psychologists about ten years to figure out what was actually wrong with me, my personal opinion is that the illness is still under-diagnosed. Until there are blood tests or a brain scan that can conclusively diagnosed mental illnesses, correct diagnosis will always be a problem. After what I came to know as an ‘episode’ that landed me in the hospital, the psychiatrist assigned to me immediately thought that I had Bipolar Disorder, but since I couldn’t give him the information and history he needed, mostly because I didn’t really understand what he wanted to know, the official diagnoses took a month of hospitalisation, loads of talking an playing around with different medications. It was more a case of ‘since all this bipolar medication has made you better, you must be Bipolar’. I think that is often the case. It is still very much a diagnosis of exclusion.

But getting back to the issue of over- or under-diagnosis, there are mental health professionals that have done studies and reached the conclusion that psychiatrists might have become a bit overly enthusiastic with their diagnosis. On the flipside though, is it better to treat someone with mood stabilisers when you suspect that they have Bipolar Disorder, or to treat them with anti-depressants and risk them becoming manic (which is what happened to me, btw)?

The term ‘bipolar’ is also thrown around very easily to describe any state or being that is not seen as ‘unipolar’. Perhaps Manic Depression is then still a better name for it. I think people are much more likely to describe the weather as bipolar than as having Manic Depression.

I’m of the opinion that all the reasons mentioned above and the fact that more people are being correctly diagnosed now creates the illusion that it has become an illness that is no worse than the flu. A larger percentage of those living with mental illness have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, yes, but I still find the statement offensive; like people think that I can just take a few pills, rest and get over it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.