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First published in Bipolar Life's newsletter in November 2019
Do you already use supplements, or are you thinking of trying some for your bipolar disorder?
A study in the USA found that one in five people with bipolar used a supplement long term. The most commonly taken supplements were fish oil, B vitamins, melatonin and multivitamins.
Even with such popular usage and marketing messages like “safe” and “natural”, one should bear in mind that many supplements:
Because the amount of information can be quite confusing, in this article we’ll try to summarise current knowledge. You can read all the way through or just skip to the section that most interests you. Abbreviations are expanded in the footnotes.
As an aside, diet and supplements are not recommended as replacements for medication. However, there is hope that in the future, individual dosing could be used to minimise or possibly eliminate medication, according to Dr William Walsh, scientist and expert in nutritional medicine of the Walsh Research Institute.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients that are naturally occurring and found in the form of EPA and DHA in foods like salmon, tuna, sardines, free-range chicken and omega-3 fortified eggs. A third form of omega-3 called ALA is found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, walnuts, flaxseeds and soybean.
Only small amount of dietary ALA can be converted into useful EPA and DHA. It is thought most people in the United States get enough ALA from the foods they eat, as well as small amounts of EPA and DHA.
Some research suggests that there is body inflammation in acute mania, and to a lesser extent, in bipolar depression. It is possible that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation in the nervous system.
However, though there are conflicting studies on whether omega-3 helps treat or prevent episodes of mania or depression, Dr. Jeffrey Rakofsky (Assistant Professor in the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, USA) and Dr. Boadie Dunlop (Director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Emory University) reviewed data from multiple trials and felt there was reasonably strong evidence compared to other supplements for bipolar depression.
Dr. Candida Fink, an experienced psychiatrist in New York (who co-authored a book for patients along with John Kraynak, who has lived experience of bipolar disorder) writes that most doctors would suggest 1-2 grams daily EPA for antidepressant effect.
SAMe is found in the body and is made from methionine, an amino acid found in foods. It has been widely studied in people with unipolar depression and bipolar disorder.
It has been advised that SAMe should not be taken for bipolar depressive symptoms as SAMe may induce or worsen symptoms of mania. There is also concern that SAMe may interact with other supplements and medications by increasing levels of serotonin (a chemical produced by nerve cells), such as antidepressants, L-tryptophan, and St. John’s wort.
Dr William Walsh even states that some people with bipolar disorder could already have excessive SAMe in their bodies.
St. John’s Wort
This yellow flower has been used as a medicine since ancient times as “the devil’s scourge” to ward off evil spirits. It was popular in the early 2000’s but popularity has waned due to concerns about lack of efficacy and risk of interaction with other medications e.g. may reduce benzodiazepine effectiveness.
Although many studies suggest St. John’s Wort can help treat mild-moderate unipolar depression, there doesn’t seem to be any strong evidence for treatment of bipolar depression. It is also risky to take along with other antidepressants due to the possibility of developing serotonin syndrome (this can cause tremor, diarrhoea and confusion) or triggering mania[1O].
Melatonin is produced by the brain in reaction to the amount of ambient light, and thus helps us regulate our circadian rhythm. In turn, it is possible that the body rhythm helps regulate mood and vice versa.
In people with mania, some studies suggest there is an early rise of lower melatonin levels, compared to healthy people and those with unipolar depression.
Early research shows that taking melatonin at bedtime increases sleep duration and reduces manic symptoms in people with bipolar disorder who also have insomnia. But there is also a risk that taking melatonin might make symptoms worse in some people with bipolar disorder.
For now, there is a lack of clear consensus on whether melatonin is helpful in bipolar disorder.
Coenzyme Q10 - This vitamin-like substance is found in the body, and in small amounts in meats and seafood. It is commonly used for heart health. Early research shows that taking coenzyme Q10 may improve symptoms of depression in people over 55 years of age with bipolar disorder, but more research is needed.
5-HTP – This substance is produced by the body and present in the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia. It increases serotonin production which itself affects mood, sleep and other body functions. There is a little evidence it can help with depression, anxiety and sleep, but just as with St. John’s Wort, if taken along with other antidepressants there is a risk of developing serotonin syndrome[8,14].
GABA – Made by the brain, GABA is thought to help anxiety and mood by blocking brain signals. However, there is little evidence to confirm its efficacy for mood and anxiety, nor consensus on safe dosage.
Inositil[7,8] – Mood stabilising medication like lithium and valproate are thought to work by stabilising the vitamin-like inositol’s signals within cells. Dr. Jeffrey Rakofsky and Dr. Boadie Dunlop found just one study that showed possibly efficacy. There is also a risk of triggering mania.
Kava – Part of the pepper family, this herb is native to islands in the South Pacific. Many people take this for anxiety. There are mixed conclusions about efficacy, and it has been linked to severe liver injury, especially if combined with alcohol.
NAC – this substance is used by the body to make antioxidants (such as glutathione) that help the body’s cells recover from stress and damage. A group of researchers reviewed multiple studies and could not advise NAC as a safe, effective treatment for bipolar disorder.
Valerian - this has a distinctive odour and is extracted from a plant native to Europe and Asia. Out of 250 species V. officinalis is most commonly used. A review of nine trials was inconclusive for valerian’s sleep benefits. It can interact with benzodiazepines and other supplements such as St. John’s wort, kava, and melatonin.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins B1, B6, B12 – there is a lack of good evidence to say these help people with bipolar disorder.
Vitamin D – some studies show a link between depression and low vitamin D. However, but there is insufficient evidence to recommend it for bipolar depression.
Folic acid – also known as vitamin B9 and found in the form L-methylfolate, it has been shown in some studies to enhance antidepressant response in people with unipolar depression;19]. However, in a review, Dr. Jeffrey Rakofsky and Dr. Boadie Dunlop did not find good supporting data for folic acid in bipolar depression treatment.
Although taking folic acid does not appear to improve the antidepressant effects of lithium in people with bipolar disorder, WebMD suggests that taking folate with the medication valproate may improve the effects of valproate.
Dr Walsh comments that people with bipolar disorder may have folate under- or overload, so individual tailoring of folate supplementation may be beneficial.
Zinc – In earlier studies, lower blood levels of zinc were linked to depression. However, evidence seems to be pointing towards a use only in unipolar depression by increasing the efficacy of antidepressant therapy.
Magnesium – A 1990 study of rapid cycling bipolar patients suggested that taking magnesium might have had an effect as strong as lithium in about half the people. Another study in 2000 suggested that taking magnesium with the drug verapamil reduced manic symptoms better than verapamil alone. More studies are needed.
In short, with this array of frequently inconclusive data, it would be advisable to have a chat with your psychiatrist first before taking supplements for bipolar disorder.
What we know
People with bipolar disorder have a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and unhealthy blood fat levels. The reasons for this may include:
There are even less well-understood possibilities, such as deliberately increasing sugar intake to reduce high levels of stress-induced blood cortisol.
An interesting recent study looked at the eating habits of 113 well people with bipolar and 160 people without bipolar. Those with bipolar were generally less adherent to a Mediterranean diet than the non-bipolar group, and 74% of the bipolar group were overweight versus 68% in the non-bipolar group. The levels of blood sugar and triglycerides (a type of blood fat) were also higher in the bipolar group.
A review of studies looking at diet in bipolar disorder suggest the following:
What we can do
As well as goal-setting towards regular healthier meals and snacks and restoring a regular circadian rhythm (there is more on this is in the October 2019 BipolarLife newsletter), the amount and type of food are also important for our mood and energy levels.
Dr Ellen Frank, Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania, recommends having three to four smaller meals per day to help keep mood and energy levels stable.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) suggests keeping a food and mood journal to see if a symptom is triggered by something dietary. An example might be agitation and nervousness after a certain amount of caffeine, or broken sleep, low mood and poorer impulse control after alcohol.
Given the above study findings, it may help to follow a portion-controlled Mediterranean-type diet (definitions vary) to help with mood and energy.
This diet typically looks like this:
fruits, vegetables, legumes
wholegrains and cereals
nuts and seeds
healthy fats like olive oil and avocado instead of butter
seafood, poultry, dairy
little or no red meat
If there are additional challenges to meet such as medication-related weight gain, you could also get support from your doctor and/or dietician. Don’t forget to check out online resources including:
Disclaimer: this content is not a substitute for individual medical advice.
Abbreviations used: EPA = Eicosapentaenoic acid, DHA = Docosahexaenoic acid, ALA = Alpha-Linolenic Acid, SAMe = S-adenosyl-L-methionine 5-HTP = 5-Hydroxytryptophan GABA = Gamma aminobutyric acid, NAC = N-acetyl cysteine
1. Bauer, M., 2015. Common use of dietary supplements for bipolar disorder: a naturalistic, self-reported study. International Journal of Bipolar Disorders, [Online]. 3, 12. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4451053/ [Accessed 27 October 2019].
2. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). 2019. What You Need to Know About Dietary Supplements. [ONLINE] Available at: https://secure2.convio.net/dabsa/site/SPageServer/TR/pdfs/pdfs/devo/PageServer;jsessionid=00000000.app274a?NONCE_TOKEN=BB856198664DE4815756376A410964EA&pagename=wellness_depression_dietary_supplements]. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
3. International Bipolar Foundation. (2019). Biochemistry Features of Bipolar Disorders and Advanced Nutrient Therapies. [Online Video]. 1 October 2016. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQdsWVm9-sw. [Accessed: 27 October 2019].
4. Muneer, A., 2019. Bipolar Disorder: Role of Inflammation and the Development of Disease Biomarkers. Psychiatry Investigation, [Online]. 13(1), 18–33. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4701682 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
5. US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. 2019. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
6. WebMD. 2018. Bipolar Disorder Supplements. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-disorder-supplements#3. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
7. Psychiatric Times. 2014. To Supplement or Not to Supplement: That Is the Bipolar Depression Question. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/psychopharmacology/supplement-or-not-supplement-bipolar-depression-question. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
8. Fink, C. and Kraynak, J., 2016. Bipolar Disorder for Dummies. 3rd ed. New Jersey, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
9. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 2017. S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe): In Depth. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/supplements/SAMe. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
10. Pipich, M, 2018. Owning Bipolar, How Patients and Families Can Take Control of Bipolar Disorder. Citadel Press.
11. De Berardis, D., 2015. The role of melatonin in mood disorders. ChronoPhysiology and Therapy, [Online]. 2015:5, 65-75. Available at: https://www.dovepress.com/the-role-of-melatonin-in-mood-disorders-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-CPT [Accessed 27 October 2019].
12. WebMD. 2018. Melatonin. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-940/melatonin. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
13. WebMD. 2018. Coenzyme Q10. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-938/coenzyme-q10. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
14. WebMD. 2018. 5-HTP. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-794/5-htp. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
15. WebMD. 2018. GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid). [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-464/gaba-gamma-aminobutyric-acid. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
16. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 2016. Kava. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/kava. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
17. Zheng, W., 2019. N-acetylcysteine for major mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, [Online]. 137(5), 391-400. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29457216 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
18. US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. 2013. Valerian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Valerian-HealthProfessional/. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
19. Shelton, R., 2013. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders. Assessing Effects of l-Methylfolate in Depression Management: Results of a Real-World Patient Experience Trial, [Online]. 15(4). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3869616 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
20. WebMD. 2018. Folic acid. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1017/folic-acid. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
21. Chouinard, G., 2019. A pilot study of magnesium aspartate hydrochloride (Magnesiocard) as a mood stabilizer for rapid cycling bipolar affective disorder patients. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, [Online]. 14(2), 171-80. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2309035 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
22. Giannini, A., 2000. Magnesium oxide augmentation of verapamil maintenance therapy in mania. Psychiatry Research, [Online]. 93(1), 83-7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10699232 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
23. Sylvia, L., 2013. Nutrition, Exercise, and Wellness Treatment in bipolar disorder: proof of concept for a consolidated intervention. International Journal of Bipolar Disorders, [Online]. Available at: https://journalbipolardisorders.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2194-7511-1-24 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
24. Łojko, D., 2018. Is diet important in bipolar disorder? Psychiatria polska, [Online]. 52(5), 783–795. Available at: http://psychiatriapolska.pl/uploads/images/PP_5_2018/ENGver783Lojko_PsychiatrPol2018v52i5.pdf [Accessed 27 October 2019].
25. Łojko, D., 2019. Diet quality and eating patterns in euthymic bipolar patients.. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, [Online]. 23(3), 1221-1238. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30779092 [Accessed 27 October 2019].
26. DBSAlliance. (2019). Treatment Choices: Options for Bipolar Disorder. [Online Video]. 2 December 2014. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzgi9Sr7twY&t=1137s. [Accessed: 10 October 2019].
27. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). 2019. Nutrition. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.dbsalliance.org/wellness/wellness-toolbox/lifestyle/nutrition/. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
28. CREST.BD Bipolar Wellness Centre. 2015. Why diet and nutrition are important to your quality of life. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bdwellness.com/Quality-of-Life-Areas/Physical/DietAndNutrition. [Accessed 27 October 2019].
First published in Bipolar Life's newsletter on 15th October 2019
Have you ever looked back on the day and wished you had done more? Or have you experienced any difficulty sticking to a waking and bedtime routine? Both are common problems, and a lack of regular circadian rhythm may significantly affect bipolar disorder.
What is circadian rhythm?
The brain’s hypothalamus gland controls the organ systems of our body via hormones, or chemical messengers. A fall in light (such as during the evening) is detected by our eyes then affects a group of cells called the Suprachiasmic Nucleus (SCN), or ‘master clock’; this in turn causes an increase in production and release of melatonin, which makes us sleepy.
This process provides us with a circadian rhythm, which can be affected by altered bedtime and waking times, shift work and jet lag.
By the way, our circadian rhythm is just over 24 hours long, as in ‘circa’ nearly and ‘dian’ day and it is believed to have significant effects on body temperature, stress-hormone cortisol, even regulation of mood and body weight.
Why is circadian rhythm so important?
Dr Yoshikazu Takaesu of Kyorin University, Tokyo suggests “…circadian rhythm dysfunctions may act as predictors for the first onset of bipolar disorder and the relapse of mood episodes” and therefore that “treatments focusing on sleep disturbances and circadian rhythm dysfunction in combination with pharmacological, psychosocial, and chronobiological treatments are believed to be useful for relapse prevention.”
In an article published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Allison Harvey states that a high proportion of people with bipolar disorder are symptomatic between episodes; even in those receiving medication and psychological treatment. In particular, sleep disturbance affects quality of life and increases risk of relapse. She also suggests that daytime mood regulation can affect sleep and vice versa.
Dr Harvey also explains that it seems sleep disturbance escalates just before an episode and worsens still further during an episode. Although there appears to be an association, it is difficult to conclude from studies whether sleep disturbance is simply a feature of bipolar disorder, or a trigger for relapse.
How much sleep is enough?
A regular sleep/wake schedule of roughly eight hours sleep a night, seven day a week is proven to help protect against relapse, according to Dr Ellen Frank, Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania. She explains that many people with bipolar disorder are late chronotypes (as are their relatives), which essentially means you sleep later and wake later than the average person. Dr Frank suggests if you can work your schedule around your chronotype, this could give you the most restful sleep but then make sure to stay on that schedule.
How can we optimise our circadian rhythm?
In the world of chronobiology, “zeitgeber” (German for “synchroniser”) is an external cue that affects the body clock, such as light alerting us to the time of day. Early research by physiologist Jürgen Aschoff found that social cues such as mealtimes or work schedules can also act as zeitgebers. Dr Ellen Frank recommends having three to four smaller meals per day to help keep mood and energy levels stable.
The zeitgeber theory suggests that episodes of depression and mania or hypomania arise as a consequence of life events: a life event disturbs social zeitgebers such as mealtimes and bedtimes, and these changes then derail the circadian rhythm, triggering relapse.
A treatment based on this idea, called “interpersonal and social rhythm therapy” (IPSRT), has been shown as effective in reducing relapse in bipolar disorder. Several studies[6,7] have shown that social rhythm therapy benefits people with bipolar disorder when added to medication.
As well as improving our circadian rhythms, having some sort of routine can assist us in setting and reaching time-based goals, which can improve mental health. For instance, small manageable goals can help lower stress from overwhelm and reduce unhelpful procrastination.
How do we end up with poorly structured days?
Routine can be disrupted through illness, whether it be physical or bipolar disorder. This can cause a multitude of symptoms such as poor motivation, low or excessive energy, low/high/unstable mood, poor concentration, and other problems with cognition such as difficulty with judgement and planning.
Life events such as loss of job, loss of regular social contact or interpersonal problems can also upset our balance.
Unhelpful thought processes where we over-identify with our thinking, known as cognitive fusion, can make it difficult to move forwards to a helpful behaviour. Examples might include: “I’m too lazy to do X” or negative thinking like “I’ll never get through everything I need to do. Might as well give up now” or “I don’t think I’m up to doing job Z perfectly so there’s no point.”
It is common human behaviour to experience habitual leaning towards ‘avoidant’ behaviours which usually make us feel better in the immediate moment (e.g. binge-watching TV or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol); unfortunately these avoidant behaviours are performed in place of healthier actions that could build our self-esteem and self-confidence because they follow our true values (e.g. going for a daily walk to improve physical/mental health, making sure to have a daily shower to practise self-care).
However, the thought of building a healthy, meaningful routine for ourselves can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Let’s look at some recommendations in line with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), where discovering and continually reviewing our personal values can help us to set useful personal goals.
What if I’m struggling to make changes?
Behavioural activation is an evidence-based treatment and maintenance therapy. It is one part of CBT and is used in mood disorders to increase a person’s positive behaviours and reduce negative ones.
Here’s an example of a negative behaviour cycle:
Sleep in for hours to avoid facing a task –>
Feel groggy and poorly motivated with low mood –>
Fell less able to perform the task –>
Experience low mood, motivation and feel guilty and frustrated –>
Sleep in late again.
On the other hand, a person making a conscious effort to perform a positive behaviour (even if they don’t feel very motivated and aren’t enjoying it) will usually find that when the goal has been achieved, their mood, motivation and confidence improve, making it easier to continue positive behaviours.
In addition to behavioural activation, it can help to explore our own values, in order to set meaningful goals.
Values & how they can help us set goal-orientated actions
Identification of values helps us work out our personal wishes and motivations, regardless of expectations from other people or society.
It is important to note that values are not describing our internal states (thoughts, feelings and emotions) as it would soon become clear that having a value of wanting to be happy and to always have positive thoughts would be impossible. Values are also not descriptions of how others behave towards us, as that is another thing we don’t have a great deal of control over either e.g. I want to be loved by person X.
By seeing where our current actions are aligned with our values, we are more confident in continuing and strengthening those actions. On the other hand, where we are not heading towards a value we feel is important, this can help focus our efforts. And if we are feeling ‘stuck’ and unsure as to what our values are, it can stimulate a thinking process to move us forwards.
We can prioritise the goals which will lead us to values we find most important. They can help us with time management. For instance, we may decide that initially we need to set aside ten minutes a day on a goal.
It’s also useful if we can keep an open mind for what comes up for us when we plan a goal or are actioning the goal. For instance, we may need to deal with negative thinking like “this needs to be perfect or there will be consequences” or cognitive fusion like “I’m too lazy to do Y”. Or we might spot potential barriers and decide how to work around them.
Some examples of personal values include
From identifying which values are most important to you, and ones that could benefit from more attention, you have a starting point from which you can begin to set meaningful goals. You might simply categorise your values into Very Important all the way through to Not Important, or just choose the 5-10 most important to you today. As with all things, they are subject to change so review them when you feel ready.
The SMART acronym apparently first appeared in 1981 in Management Review. Since then, SMART has been used by a tool by countless organisations and individuals to help people identify and reach their goals. There are a few different versions, but we will use a commonly used one for the purposes of the article.
Don’t forget that we may need to break down a single goal into smaller ones, and more than one goal can run at the same time, so write down your ideas and plans.
To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, each one should be:
Reward yourself for completion of a goal if that helps, as some tasks are an effort and not always enjoyable.
Of course, setting and achieving goals is not always straightforward. Don Kattler, a peer researcher for The Collaborative RESearch Team (CREST.BD) recommends that if you find yourself unable to reach a goal, first practise self-compassion (for instance “struggling to achieve is the human condition”, “I’m doing the best I can”), kindness and non-judgement. Next you could gently investigate any internal (e.g. feeling tired) and external barriers (e.g. insufficient time) that got in the way of success this time. Problem-solving an issue increases your chance of success next time. Another realisation might be that the goal was unrealistically high, so you might reduce the difficulty of the goal to maximise success.
And finally, don’t forget you can also check in with friends, family, your GP, psychiatrist or psychologist to if you need more support.
1. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 2019. Circadian Rhythms. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_circadianrhythms.aspx. Accessed 10 October 2019].
2. Takaesu, Y., 2018. Circadian rhythm in bipolar disorder: A review of the literature.. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, [Online]. 72(9), 673-682. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29869403 [Accessed 10 October 2019].
3. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2008. Sleep and Circadian Rhythms in Bipolar Disorder: Seeking Synchrony, Harmony, and Regulation. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08010098. [Accessed 10 October 2019].
4. DBSAlliance. (2019). Treatment Choices: Options for Bipolar Disorder. [Online Video]. 2 December 2014. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzgi9Sr7twY&t=1137s. [Accessed: 10 October 2019].
5. Association for Psychological Science. 2016. Controlling Mood Disorders: A Matter of Routine. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/controlling-mood-disorders-a-matter-of-routine. [Accessed 10 October 2019].
6. Frank, E., 2005. Two-Year Outcomes for Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy in Individuals With Bipolar I Disorder. Archives Of General Psychiatry, [Online]. 62(9), 996-1004. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/1108410#26048444 [Accessed 10 October 2019].
7. National Institute of Mental Health. 2007. Questions and Answers About the STEP-BD Depression Psychosocial Treatment Trial. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/funding/clinical-research/practical/step-bd/questions-and-answers-about-the-step-bd-depression-psychosocial-treatment-trial.shtml. [Accessed 10 October 2019].
8. ACT Mindfully. 2019. Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.actmindfully.com.au. [Accessed 10 October 2019].
9. William Miller, University of New Mexico, (2019), Personal Values Card Sort [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.guilford.com/add/miller2/values.pdf?t [Accessed 10 October 2019].
10. Don Kattler, Collaborative RESearch Team to study Bipolar Disorder, UBC. (2015). CREST.BD Home & Bipolar Disorder Slides. [Online Video]. 6 March 2015. Available from: https://www.slideshare.net/crestbd/crestbd-home-webinar-slides. [Accessed: 10 October 2019].
First published in Bipolar Life's newsletter on 17th September 2019
Why should we care about stigma?
Stigma affects many people in society, from race and gender inequality through to people living with mental health problems like bipolar disorder. It is a huge issue with myriad consequences, not least that individuals may experience knock-on effects of stigma that can even outweigh those of the mental health disorder itself. By extension, family and friends may also experience stigma, also known as ‘courtesy’ or ‘association stigma’.
How might an individual be affected by stigma?
An individual experiencing stigma may form negative attitudes and behaviours about him or herself (self-stigma), and may:
Isn’t stigma decreasing?
Despite the globally large number of public campaigns, high school education and media coverage about mental health, one might think that stigma would be less prevalent. However, according to the General Social Survey which collects data about U.S. residents, the public is in fact more stigmatising – despite increased knowledge about mental illness – than back in the 1950s.
The reasons for this surprising worsening of public opinion include:
What is stigma?
Ostracisation of members of society has existed as far back in history as ancient Greece. For example, in Athens, traitors and slaves were physically branded with ‘the mark of shame’ – ‘stigma’ in Greek.
Nowadays stigma is less visible, but most affected are those with mental illness, the homeless, and substance abusers. In one study, it was found that although people with bipolar disorders 1 and 2 experienced the same personal experience of stigma as those with unipolar depression, the impact (in terms of quality of life, social and familial relations and self-esteem) was much worse in people with bipolar disorder.
Stigma can include one or more of the following:
A survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the U.K. looked at public perception of people with severe depression. The most commonly held beliefs were that these people:
Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, U.S.A. is well known for her work on bipolar disorder as well as her autobiographical account of her own experience of the condition. She states that these study figures are even higher when applied to people with bipolar disorder.
It is possible bipolar disorder may appear unpredictable due to its sometimes-fluctuating nature, depending on whether the individual is relatively well and getting treatment and support, or experiencing a period of depression, mania or mixed state.
A little more about self-stigma
It is not uncommon for an individual with bipolar disorder to experience negative beliefs about him or herself, which may reduce self-esteem and self-confidence. Worse still, this state of mind may lead to avoidant behaviours like not pursuing opportunities, or not challenging negative self-beliefs by gathering evidence to the contrary.
Even within the medical profession there is stigma from, and towards, other healthcare providers. Compassion without sufficient knowledge may be a contributing factor in some cases.
Dr. Jamison offers an interesting observation that the ‘silently successful’ get well because they have sought and received good care, yet they remain silent for fear of personal or professional reprisal. This in turn perpetuates the public’s misconception that the mentally ill don’t get better.
Where to from here?
Fortunately, clinicians and researchers in many countries are increasingly aware of the rise of stigma and driving ongoing important work in this field. Though there is no one simple solution, here are some helpful, evidence-based suggestions for moving forward.
A Canadian study recommended six approaches to stigma reduction:
Individuals, friends and family
On an individual level, it should be noted that self-stigma can manifest and be managed in different ways. In CREST.BD's Stigma123 Webinar, Natasha Kolida, a student and researcher with bipolar disorder, encourages education as well as being holistic and self-compassionate in one’s journey. More about CREST.BD in a moment.
Dr. Jamison advises:
In 2014 Dr. Roumen Milev, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Queen’s University, Canada ran a CREST.BD webinar about overcoming stigma in bipolar disorder. In this presentation, he describes a fascinating community-based recovery-orientated course provided to 8-10 participants with mood and anxiety disorders. Comprising seven closed two-hour sessions, content included education about stigma (covering self-stigma, family, friends and medical settings; education, housing and the workplace); some sessions taking the form of group workshops with brainstorming and role play.
Perhaps this is the sort of course we could make widely available in Australia to complement our current inpatient and community programmes for those with bipolar disorder.
Who is CREST.BD?
CREST.BD describes itself as “The Collaborative RESearch Team that studies psychosocial issues in Bipolar Disorder...CREST.BD is a multidisciplinary collaborative network of researchers, healthcare providers, people living with bipolar disorder, their family members and supporters.” Bipolar Life’s patron, Professor Greg Murray, is Deputy Lead and a key researcher with this inspiring international team.
CREST.BD’s website includes excellent resources and tools including videos on stigma, cognition, sleep, mood, physical health, home, self-esteem, leisure, relationships, spirituality, money, independence, identity, work and study for people with bipolar disorder.
Media and beyond
Finally, looking at how we can make a difference on a larger scale, StigmaWatch is a constructive program run by national mental health charity, SANE Australia. Its aim is to promote responsible reporting of mental illness and suicide in Australian media and is supported by Mindframe, an Australian Government initiative. This is a great example of protest being used as a tool to improve public perception of mental illness. SANE encourages anyone to report to StigmaWatch if they see inaccurate or inappropriate terminology or reporting of mental illness or suicide.
SANE’s website states that “Mindframe has also developed resources for media professionals, journalism students, scriptwriters, police and courts, and conduct briefing sessions with media organisations to discuss issues relating to mental illness and suicide”.
With so much research and an increasingly evidence-based approach to combating stigma, individuals have more power than ever to influence how bipolar disorder is seen in society. In addition, the many tools available can greatly assist an individual to reduce self-stigma and embrace life more fully.
YouTube. 2019. Discrimination and Stigma Against Patients with Depression and Bipolar Disorder. Johns Hopkins Medicine. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Hc0NF89ryg. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
YouTube. 2019. Bipolar Disorder Stigma, Suicide & Families. CRESTBD. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eE8YSSo-tA&t=1582s. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
YouTube. 2019. Overcoming Stigma in Bipolar Disorder: Challenges and Opportunities. CRESTBD. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDJ4DSZ0Id0&t=2258s. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
YouTube. 2019. CREST.BD's Stigma123 Webinar Jan2016. CRESTBD. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=234&v=LKkpvPD903Y. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
Goodwin, J., 2014. The Horror of Stigma: Psychosis and Mental Health Care Environments in Twenty‐First‐Century Horror Film (Part II). Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, [Online]. 50/4, 224-234. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ppc.12044 [Accessed 17 September 2019].
Arboleda-Flórez, J., 2012. From sin to science: fighting the stigmatization of mental illnesses.. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, [Online]. 57(8):, 457-63. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22854027 [Accessed 17 September 2019].
CREST.BD. 2019. New directions in bipolar disorder research, treatment and care. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.crestbd.ca/. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
SANE. 2019. StigmaWatch. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.sane.org/services/stigmawatch. [Accessed 17 September 2019].
Dr Alice Lam
I'm a doctor who is passionate about writing quality health content.