Despite the progress in destigmatising mental health, there’s still lots of work to be done to raise awareness of lesser-known conditions such as bipolar disorder. Here, Bella Rareworld – a networking guru and host of the mental health podcast Think Tenacity who lives with bipolar – discusses the things she wishes more people knew about her condition.
The mental health conversation has come a long way over the last couple of years. The stigma surrounding conditions such as anxiety and depression has been reduced, with celebrities and public figures speaking out about their struggles and encouraging others to admit when they’re not feeling OK.
It’s incredible to see these conversations being normalised – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done. In particular, there continues to be a lack of public understanding and awareness when it comes to less common mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder; a report published by mental health charity Time To Change earlier this year found that 74% of people with experience of a less common mental health problem said fear of stigma and discrimination stops them from doing the things they want to do.
Just recently, the reaction to Kanye West’s suspected manic episode – a common symptom of bipolar disorder – revealed the extent of the problem. Despite having spoken about his bipolar disorder in the past, many of the people condemning West’s erratic behaviour failed to acknowledge the fact that he lives with a mental health condition, and in doing so, only alienated and stigmatised his experience further.
Described by the NHS as “a mental health condition that affects your moods,” bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings which can trigger periods of depression – where someone might feel very low, lethargic and worthless – and mania – where someone might feel very high, overactive and agitated. Unlike ‘normal’ mood swings, those experienced by people with bipolar disorder can last for weeks at a time.
Now more than ever, it’s important to ensure that the mental health conversation takes into account all conditions and experiences. And if we’re going to tackle the stigma which still surrounds conditions such as bipolar disorder, the first thing we need to do is raise awareness of what people living with bipolar disorder experience on a daily basis, outside of the symptom descriptors we can read online.
With this in mind, Stylist sat down with Bella Rareworld, a networking guru, podcaster and mental health advocate who lives with bipolar disorder, to learn more about how her bipolar disorder manifests and what she wishes more people knew about bipolar disorder as a whole. Here’s what she had to say.
When were you first diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
“I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago. One of the most difficult things with bipolar is that it is extremely difficult to diagnose, so people with bipolar might even be diagnosed incorrectly to start with.
“In my case, I had a lot of panic attacks and depression in my early teenage years, and that led to me feeling very suicidal and eventually getting help for depression. But 12 years ago when I fell ill with depression again and also had a manic episode, they were able to do a lot of investigation to diagnose me with bipolar.
“In the beginning, I was scared because I didn’t know what bipolar was. 12 years ago, we didn’t talk about mental health as we do now so I couldn’t even go on the internet and learn more.”
How does your bipolar disorder manifest?
“My bipolar comes in two forms. I do get manic episodes, but I’d say about 70% of the time my bipolar manifests as depression.
“When you experience a manic episode, it’s like you’ve doubled up on all your skills; you get super creative; you want to do so many different things; you become really energetic. In my case – I like writing – so when I’m in a manic stage I could write for ages. Another thing that happens when I’m manic is I become very talkative, and so I just start talking about anything – and sometimes it could be personal stuff I don’t even mean to share.
“To manage this, if I know I’m manic, I’ll stay at home and won’t go anywhere, so rather than me go outside and start talking to people – often people I don’t know – and getting myself into trouble, I might put that energy into cooking and tidying the house. However, because my mind is all over the place I often end up getting distracted and not finishing things.
“Unfortunately, the other symptom I have during these manic episodes is memory loss, particularly when it comes to cooking. I really like cooking food – it relaxes me and I’m a big foodie – but when my bipolar is bad, I can’t even remember how to cook an egg. And then often when my memory goes it can sometimes make me lose my confidence and forget all my achievements. So even if you told me about all of my proudest moments, I wouldn’t understand what you mean.
“To try and counteract this, I have a folder of all my speaking videos – of my podcast and any other achievements – and a list I have on the wall by my fridge, just to remind myself.
“On the other hand, when you experience a depressive episode, whatever your personality is is doubled. For example, in my case, despite being a networking speaker, I’m very quiet at home and don’t like a lot of noise. So when I’m depressed, that part of my personality doubles and I feel like I don’t want to talk to anyone. I used to shut my family out when I felt like that, so I sat down with them and talked about what I’m going through in those moments, and we’ve since come up with a system to help them identify when I need support.
“When I’m depressed I also struggle to concentrate on a lot of things – I might have YouTube on in the background and I don’t even know what’s going on. And that can go on for the whole day, or the whole weekend, or even a whole week.”
What are three things you wish more people understood about bipolar disorder?
1. It doesn’t discriminate
“Anybody can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder – the illness doesn’t discriminate, and it can affect people regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender.”
2. It’s an illness
“If someone met me for the first time when I wasn’t doing well with my bipolar and I was really erratic and manic, they’d probably think I was just being rude – they probably wouldn’t think ‘Bella is just unwell’, and they’d probably judge me there and then. But what we have to understand – and I think it might take us another few years to get to this point – is that when someone is mentally ill, it is an illness that’s no different from if someone was dealing with cancer or had a broken leg.
“I hope one day a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder can be judged for the person they are – not for the behaviours and symptoms which result from their mental health.
“Bipolar disorder is an illness – one that we have to take medication for – so there shouldn’t be this judgement around it. Ill is ill. Unwell is unwell.”
3. People with bipolar disorder can still live a successful, happy life
“Despite all of the bad days, it is possible to live a good and successful life with bipolar disorder. That’s the message I’m trying to get across in my new podcast Think Tenacity – there may be good days and there may be bad days, but we can get through it.
“For example, in dealing with my bipolar disorder, I’ve learnt how creative I am. So one of the things I do when I’m feeling ill is make balloon decorations – I’ve decorated my house, I’ve decorated my friends’ kids birthday parties. I don’t know how I found out I could do it, but I’m really good at it!”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: instagram.com/bipolarspeaker