Tomorrow is world bipolar day. It falls on 30th March every year and this date was chosen as it was the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed to probably have bipolar disorder. There is not alot of understanding about bipolar disorder in Singapore. It seems that most people are more familiar and enamored with this concept of ‘split personality’, no doubt as a result of the grossly erroneous representation of mental illness seen all too often in Mediacorp’s channel 8 dramas. Tsk tsk. According to a study done in 2012, about 1 in 100 Singaporeans have bipolar disorder. Which, if you think about it, is probably more common than we think and in our lives, we probably know of a family member or friend, or friend of a friend who has this condition.
Bipolar disorder was known by a different name not so long ago. Before the 80s, it was more frequently described as ‘manic-depressive illness’ to illustrate the dual polarity that distinguishes people with this condition from people who are predominantly depressive. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, who was a physician in ancient Greece, was one of the first to make an observation of patients who ‘laugh, play, dance night and day, and sometimes go openly to the market crowned, as if victors in some contest of skill’ only to be ‘torpid, dull and sorrowful’ at other times (see a short history of bipolar disorder). It was only in 1896 that a German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, used the term ‘manic depressive psychosis’ to distinguish a bipolar patient cycling between periods of mania (a long period of elevated sense of ‘high’ or euphoria, sleeping very little, exhibiting high levels of creativity and grandiosity, extreme irritability etc.) to periods of depression (a long period of feeling sad or sense of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, feeling tired and lethargic etc.). Emil Kraepelin observed that these two periods were often separated by intervals during which the person can be seen to be acting in a perfectly normal way.
My first encounter of bipolar disorder was with a close friend of mine back when I was in my early 20s. This friend was an extremely creative person. Whenever anyone needed help with wedding decorations, they would always call upon her to be the wedding planner. I remember always marveling at how she didn’t need any sleep and she would just go on and on, creating one thing after another and she would get really excited and hyper. She was also of high intellect and was very highly valued at her work place. However, she would also go through times when she would not return calls and she would just curl up at home and not want to talk to any of us. She would appear really tired and sad and we wouldn’t really understand what was bothering her. I remember during one of those ‘low’ moments, she walked into her boss’ office with the pile of paperwork that was due, dumped it on her desk, told her she is quitting and walked out. At that time, we just figured that she’s burned out from work or something was stressing her out and causing severe mood swings. It was only much later, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that the pieces all started to come together. She received treatment for her disorder and though I haven’t really been very good at keeping in touch with her, the last I heard she was in a job she enjoys and things were much better for her.
I think many of us may have a similar story like this, but we just don’t talk about it because of the stigma that can surround mental health conditions. Which is why I think it’s great that there are days like ‘world bipolar day’ that reminds us of the importance to know better, to understand better, so we can support our family and friends better. Bipolar disorder is a highly treatable condition. If you think you or your friends may have bipolar disorder, you can use this self checklist by the black dog institute to find out more and speak with a mental health professional about your concerns. You can also check out this movie titled ‘no letting go’ on caring for a child/teenager with bipolar disorder.