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It can be intimidating to receive a new diagnosis, especially for a complex mood disorder, so here are practical recommendations for your next steps.

Breathe. You’re not alone. Its likely you already know someone who has bipolar disorder, they just haven’t told you.

You know, at least 80 million people have bipolar disorder. Different studies estimate between 1-2.5% of the population, regardless of ethnicity or background have bipolar disorder.

You should know that up to 70% of people with bipolar are incorrectly diagnosed at first. This is likely because many people first present with atypical depression, whereas you are required to show (hypo)manic elevated mood symptoms to receive a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

It’s certainly life-changing, being told that you have bipolar disorder. After all, it is a life-long condition. You’ve tried to get as much information possible out of your short session with your doctor but your head is probably full of doubts, worries, and questions. We’ve all been there in some way during our life.

So here are some things you should consider doing, if you’re at the very start of your bipolar disorder treatment journey:

  1. Stay in a positive perspective. Yes it is an illness and there is no cure. But that doesn’t mean your life is going to be short and terrible! There are many people with bipolar disorder who live wonderful, fulfilling lives. Often the hardest part of getting there is the treatment journey of trying out different medicines and dealing with side effects to see what works best for you. That’s why some positivity, optimism and strength will go a long way as you learn to live with your diagnosis.
  2. Identify a good psychiatrist. You may have been diagnosed by a GP or been told you might have bipolar by a friend or psychologist. People with bipolar disorder must see a psychiatrist to manage the medications they take to manage the chemical imbalance that drives their symptoms.
    It can be hard to find a good doctor, and its perfectly normal to have disagreements or frustrations with your psychiatrists sometimes. You just want to make sure its someone you feel you can be open and honest with, and that if you ever do change for some reason, you keep seeing your current one until you have your next appointment with the new one. Do not ever let there be a lapse in your treatment, because that can cause your symptoms to worsen.
  3. Listen to your doctors. There is an issue with people who have bipolar disorder who often stop taking medicines or going to the doctor when things start to feel ok. When things are going ok, it is most likely because the treatment is working- so keep going! If you are having trouble with a medicine, such as weight gain, sleep problems of indigestion, then tell your doctor immediately but don’t attempt to make changes to medicines yourself as it can be dangerous for your mental and physical health.
  4. Educate yourself. We get only these 60 minute appointments with psychiatrists to discuss something that will affect us our whole lives. Read! Watch TED Talks! Learn about what is going on in your brain, what these medicines do, and what causes the different mood swings. You’ll learn things that will make your conversations with doctors more productive, you’ll gain a new and higher perspective on your condition, and you may find ways to help lessen symptoms through non-medical means, like making a sleep schedule for example. That’s what we specialise in at my organisation, everything between the doctors office and the patient that gets left unsaid and unlearned, that can help you on your journey.
  5. Identify your support network. We definitely do need support, and those closest from you definitely need to know as they can actually be of great help to you in your treatment journey, both while you are figuring things out, dealing with the emotional difficulties, and if you’re ever experiencing mood swings. It can be difficult to manage all these things ourselves so we need a support network. So, sit down with a pen and paper and write down all those people who are closest to you – then circle the ones who you think you could go to if you ever had a problem. Those are the people who should know, and when you tell them, try to use some of that positive energy I described in my first point because they will reflect it back to you. Optimism and encouragement is a great motivational booster.Your support network may also include a psychotherapist, psychologist, or counsellor who works with you through talk therapy, in addition to the psychiatrist who manages your medicines and overall treatment.

Hope that’s not too much to take in. If you’re thinking of getting diagnosed for bipolar disorder and are reading this, I’d recommend number 1 to 5, then sit down for a cup of tea, relax and call a good friend or family member for support.

Article by Kieran Howard – Kieran is an anthropologist and the founder of Rise Bipolar ( a social enterprise dedicated to changing the image of bipolar while raising money for mental health research.

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