Bipolar illness knows no age

Johannesburg – Bipolar disorder affects up to half a million South Africans.

This is according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), which commemorated bipolar awareness on Wednesday.

In conversation with Miss SA Shudufadzo Musida, author and Sadag support group leader Samantha Smirin explained that the word bipolar means two extremes or two different realities of elation and depression.

“It’s extreme mood swings, much more than the usual ups and downs. It’s a very intense experience,” says Smirin, who also lives with the chronic illness.

“The manic episode is called euphoric, although it’s not euphoric for me. It’s a breakdown with your contact with reality, an inability to think clearly. Racing thoughts and a head full of ideas, a breakdown in normal activities like sleeping and eating. You struggle to have a grip on daily life.

“Your entire system struggles and it can lead to illusions and hallucinations. The psychotic phase is a dangerous place to be.” Smirin explains that the onset of the condition is usually at 18, but also mentions that Sadag is seeing more children aged 14 also battling with the illness.

Bipolar disorder. PICTURE: PEXELS PHOTOS

“Bipolar can also be triggered by traumatic events like the death of a loved one or sexual abuse,” she said.

Dr Leverne Mountany, a psychiatrist at Life Mental Health Unit at Life Riverfi eld lodge, explains that the mental condition is slightly more prominent in females than males, adding that the diagnosis does not involve blood tests and scans.

“There are tests we do, we look at a set of criteria agreed on internationally, looking at collateral information and patterns over a lifetime of that individual.

“There is a strong genetic component involved, but doesn’t mean you will definitely get it if a family member has it. Also, mood swings is not bipolar. It is a serious disorder and difficult to treat. People mostly present at the depressed stage for treatment,” says Mountany.

Mountany adds that as with any other chronic illness, bi-polar cannot be cured but can be controlled with the right medication.

There are five types of bipolar listed by the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.

Bipolar I disorder involves manic episodes lasting seven days or more, or severe mania that requires hospitalisation, a major depressive episode that lasts two weeks or more.

Bipolar II disorder features both mania and depression, but the mania is less severe than in bipolar I, which doctors call hypomania.

A person with bipolar II may experience a major depressive episode preceding or following a manic episode.

Cyclothymic disorder includes symptoms of hypomania and depression that last for two years or more in adults or one year in children.

Dr Kobus Roux, a psychiatrist at Life Mental Health Unit, recommends electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for many mental disorders. He says ECT is a procedure done under general anaesthesia in which electric currents are passed through the brain, triggering a brief seizure.

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