PhD Student and Postgraduate Peer Supporter, Sum, discusses Bipolar Disorder and shares his own personal experience of this mental health condition…
My experience with mental health problems began when I was sixteen years old. After significant struggles and inaccurate diagnoses of depression whilst completing my undergraduate degree, I was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Since then, I’ve come to terms with my diagnosis and have made a conscious effort to help others who may be struggling with mental health problems.
I’m currently completing a PhD investigating genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder in the general population and got involved with the university’s ‘What’s on Your Mind? #Lets Share’ mental health campaign to share my personal experience, in the hopes it could help others and encourage people to talk more openly about mental health.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder where a person experiences periods of depression (feeling very low and lethargic), alternating with periods of abnormally elevated mood (feeling very high and overactive), known as ‘mania’ or ‘hypomania’.
It is the presence of mania or hypomania which means someone has bipolar disorder as opposed to depression.
Between 1 and 2 people in 100 have Bipolar Disorder (Merikangas et al., 2011). One of the biggest challenges in accurate detection of bipolar disorder is that people are typically more likely to seek support when they are depressed, as opposed to when they are feeling euphoric, which often leads to delays in correct diagnoses – i.e. people being misdiagnosed with depression, instead of bipolar disorder (Baethge et al. 2003).
I guess my story starts before I came to university. When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and had to take time off to recover from it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember that. ‘Why don’t you remember?’ you might wonder.
On my twenty-first birthday, hospitalised with paralysis of my lower limbs and speech difficulties, I went in and out of consciousness and woke the next day. My dad approached me as he had done before, but I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know who I was. So, here I was in a hospital, with no idea who I was or how I got here.
Imagine a world where you have no idea who you are, where you have been and who people are. Like a child, I soaked things up like a sponge and began to understand who I was and who my family were again. Over time, I managed to recover well and started to think about applying to university. My thoughts were: if I can learn about the brain and how it works, maybe I can understand why my memory and my brain appears to have gone haywire!
Whilst at university
Now we fast-forward to October 2013. I had been feeling demotivated, my weight had dropped by tens of kilos, I just didn’t care about anything and I couldn’t enjoy anything anymore. My girlfriend at the time had broken up with me (again) and, whilst doing the Cardiff Half marathon, I sustained a serious leg injury which meant I had to hobble the last 3 miles. It was sheer agony but, when I finished the race, rather than feeling joy, I felt nothing.
Things grew worse and I remember voices in my head telling me I was worthless. I was doing my final year project and I called my Supervisor. I was crying on the phone saying “I’m sorry but right now I can’t come in. I’m struggling so much and I just want to be done with it”. My mood was so low and I thought about suicide constantly.
I got my pen and paper and wrote a letter to my parents outlining everything; the way I felt and why it had to be this way. To me, I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I didn’t want them to have to suffer anymore. I even told them: ‘it’s okay though, because you still have my sister and I have nothing to live for anymore’. I attempted suicide (more than once); my attempt was thwarted and I was in tears. How had I – this hard-working young man – come to this point? I was asking myself: Why is it that it is always me? Why do my family have to deal with all this rubbish? Haven’t we been through enough?
The road to help and accurate diagnosis
After making the decision to seek help, I accessed the university’s Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Service, who immediately referred me to the Community Mental Health Team for intensive support. It was clear I was not in the right frame of mind and I was sectioned for my own protection.
As you can imagine, this was an incredibly traumatic experience for me and my family. I was diagnosed with depression and started taking anti-depressants. My mood lifted over the next few months and I started to enjoy things more. I tried mindfulness and a few other things like Behavioural Therapy, but they weren’t for me. I know I took the right avenues and sought help from various places with the idea of having a holistic approach to getting better.
July 2014 came around and I had applied to volunteer to help teach children in Malota, Zambia about sex education. A month later, I went to India on a government-funded scheme, which was absolutely amazing, and I felt that things were going well.
However, this didn’t last. I started to experience symptoms which were in stark contrast to being severely depressed. I had so much energy, wanted to talk at 100 miles an hour and was so happy! Mania where have you been all my life?!
I was hearing and seeing things that weren’t there, having hallucinations and generally losing touch with reality (although I didn’t realise this at the time).
I was in a manic phase, experiencing ‘bipolar psychosis’, because I actually have bipolar disorder – which is different to the depression I had been diagnosed with.
Whilst I was feeling incredibly over-energised and happy, this did mean that I was a complete nuisance to everyone around me so I did have to take some more time off my final year to become calmer. I would say it genuinely did take about 4 months or so to fully come out of it and return to some sort of balance between the two mood states.
Once things settled, it wasn’t too long before I got depressed again, though this time it was less severe and extreme as my first episode. Depression again! This must be some kind of record or something. I took the time off and completed my final year exams in the summer. I graduated with a first class degree classification despite it all. Go me.
Driving research and sharing my experience to help others
So I got my first and now I am doing a PhD. My research is exploring genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder in the general population, so I have a strong driver from personal experience to advance this learning.
Whilst my research is still ongoing, I knew I could help people in the meantime by sharing my experience. It is painful for me to write about this and, yes, I cried as I wrote it because it is still very raw.
Although I know that I have come to terms with it, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened. I am still Sum; still the same character and still going strong.
Life throws many obstacles in the way and we are faced with two choices: we either avoid and try to go around them, or we deal with them. Avoiding often means facing the same recurring obstacle; by dealing with it, we are able to move on and go forward.
At the start of the third year of my PhD, I successfully applied to become a Wellbeing Champion and a Postgraduate Peer Supporter, which has allowed me to promote wellbeing and provide peer support to other students who may be struggling. I haven’t looked back since.
When I was offered the opportunity to help with the university’s What’s on Your Mind? #LetsShare campaign, I knew I had to take it up. I feel strongly and passionately about helping people understand that mental health can affect anyone of any race, any gender and any age. The statistics might say 1 in 4 people are affected by mental health problems but I think that is likely an underestimate.
So many people don’t share how they’re feeling and don’t feel they can. I hope that by sharing my story it will help others to feel like there is help out there and that they are not alone. As the saying goes: a problem shared is a problem halved.
What’s on Your Mind? Let’s Share more about mental health
Watch our #LetsShare video, featuring Cardiff University students and staff, who have been brave enough to speak about their own personal experiences of mental health, in support of the Campaign.
Students have also shared their experiences in a series of blogs:
Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Service
The Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Service can offer support to anybody experiencing any sort of difficulty.
One-to-one therapy appointments are available to request via an Online Self-Referral Form, which can be found on the Our Appointments Page of the Student Intranet.
A daily Wellbeing Walk-In Service (15:00-15:45: Monday–Friday and Wednesday mornings: 9:30-10:15 at the Student Support Centre at 50 Park Place) is also available.
Wellbeing Workshops offer information, support and self-help resources on a variety of mental health difficulties, and several therapeutic Courses and Groups are also available, offering a safe and confidential space to explore issues and develop new skills over the course of several weeks.
Sum, PhD Student, School of Medicine.
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