Everything you need to understand about the mental health illness

Those with bipolar disorder go through uncontrollable periods of mania and depression, which can even become life threatening. Here’s everything you need to know about the serious mental health illness.

Kanye West’s mental health has recently come under increased scrutiny after he launched a potential bid for US president and then proceeded to unleash a series of bizarre statements and Tweets.

But this ‘unusual behaviour’ is the reality of a debilitating mental health disorder: bipolar.

In several Instagram posts, the rapper’s wife Kim Kardashian West, spoke up about how her husband’s mental health has heavily affected him and their family.

“Anyone who has [bipolar disorder] or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how complicated and painful it is to understand,” Kardashian West wrote. “I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and Kanye’s right to privacy when it comes to his health.”

She continued: “People who are unaware of far from removed from this experience can be judgemental and not understand that the individual themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try.”

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The mother-of-four said his disorder is “part of his genius” and as a result “many of his big dreams have come true”.

“Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some.”

Kardashian West concluded with a plea to destigmatise talking about mental and for everyone to give “grace” to people struggling.

The 43-year-old rapper has spoken openly about his mood disorder, which he was first diagnosed with about three years ago. He likened it to having “a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle.”

“It is a health issue. This — it’s like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle. And if someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not going to push on him more,” West said in a 2019 interview with David Letterman. “With us, once our brain gets to a point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse.”

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health illness that features pronounced mood swings from high to low, and low to high. High periods are categorised as mania, while low periods are categorised as depression.

And it isn’t as rare as expected. It is estimated approximately 1.3 per cent of Australians live with a form of bipolar disorder, and one in 50 adult Australians experience bipolar disorder each year.

While bipolar can be hard to diagnose as the signs and symptoms vary between each individual, there are some key signs you can look for.

Key signs of bipolar highs, or mania

According to Healthline, the seven key signs of mania (or highs) are as follows:

1. Feeling overly happy for long periods of time

2. A decreased need for sleep

3. Talking very fast, often with racing thoughts

4. Feeling extremely restless or impulsive

5. Becoming easily distracted

6. Having overconfidence in your abilities

7. Engaging in risky behaviour. E.g. impulsive sex, gambling with life savings, big spending sprees.

Psychologist Briony Leo says a manic episode is much more than just a mood swing. “It is really important to understand that we all have mood swings (e.g. going from feeling happy and elated, to sad and down), but a manic episode is much more than a mood swing,” she tells Body+Soul. “Often the person will be not sleeping, behaving impulsively, may be out of touch with reality or psychotic, and might be doing things like making large purchases.”

Key signs of bipolar low periods, or depression

On the other hand, the seven key signs of depression are as follows:

1. Feeling sad long periods of time

2. Withdrawing from friends and family

3. Losing interest in activities that once brought you joy

4. Having a significant change in appetite

5. Feeling fatigue or lacking energy

6. Lack of memory, poor concentration and inability to make decisions

7. Thoughts of suicide, or having a preoccupation with death

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person, call 000 and stay with the person until help arrives.

And if you think someone is considering suicide, get immediate help from Lifeline by calling 13 11 14.

Types of bipolar disorder

Bipolar I disorder

Those with bipolar I typically experience one or more manic episodes lasting at least one week, depressive episodes and psychotic episodes.

This form used to be called “manic depression” as episodes of mania are clear. The person’s behaviour are extreme, and quickly escalates until they’re uncontrollable.

Bipolar II disorder

This type is more common than bipolar I and involves depressive symptoms coupled with much less severe manic symptoms (when compared to bipolar I). Depressive symptoms associated with bipolar II are often more frequent and longer-lasting.

It’s often difficult for people to see bipolar II in themselves, and is often up to friends and family to encourage someone with this type to get help.

Cyclothymic disorder

This type is characterised by persistent and unpredictable changes in mild. The highs and lows are shorter and less extreme than for bipolar I and II disorder. Overtime, a person’s changed in mood may develop into a diagnosis of bipolar I or II.

Things to say to someone with bipolar

According to Leo, there are a few thing you can say to someone with bipolar that may help them feel more at ease in your company.

I’m sorry that you’re struggling with this – how can I support you?

What do you need from me?

If you’re worried about their behaviour…

‘I’m quite worried about you right now and I’m concerned that you’re not feeling well. Is it okay if I call a family member and we can talk about how to best look after you at the moment?’ Or ‘Let’s make an appointment with your doctor, I’ll come with you and we can get you some help’.

“Often if someone is in the middle of a manic episode they won’t be wanting to get help, as they will likely be energised and enjoying themselves,” Leo says. “However, if they are in a depressed state there may be an awareness that there is the need for treatment and some interventions.”

Things you should never say to someone with bipolar…

“Definitely don’t question the diagnosis if someone tells you that they have it,” Leo explains. “Sometimes people may only have had one manic episode, but they will be dealing with the effects of Bipolar for most of their lives, and needing to take medication and manage some of the depressive symptoms. Other people might have Bipolar II, which looks more similar to Clinical Depression – but at some stage they have had a hypomanic episode, so they have been diagnosed as Bipolar.”

“As a friend or partner, the important thing is to let them know you’re there to support them and to help if they become unwell. That said, having bipolar does not give someone the excuse to behave poorly or abusively. It is okay to set boundaries if your friend or partner is becoming aggressive towards you.

“Bipolar is a medical condition just like diabetes or heart disease – it affects everyone differently, but with appropriate medical treatment, it can be managed and the person who is suffering from it can lead a normal and functional life. The key thing to remember is that every person’s experience of Bipolar is different, so the key is to get them support and treatment if their symptoms are starting to escalate.”

Again, if you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or online here for a chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.

Briony Leo is a Melbourne psychologist who works with couples, individuals and addictions. She is interested in helping people have good relationships and improve their wellbeing through better understanding of psychology, as well as ongoing behavioural changes.