Bipolar Explorers

Bipolar Explorers was a group facilitated by Guy Holmes and Dylan Hartley that met on a weekly basis during 2011 in Shrewsbury at The Lantern - an outreach library service that has a café and rooms for rent.

The aim was to bring people together in a relatively informal group to discuss areas of mutual interest relevant to what gets called ‘Bipolar Disorder’ or ‘Manic Depression’. The course was neither an education group nor a skills group where the organisers tell participants what ‘bipolar’ is and what people should and should not do. Rather, the idea was to create a safe place where different views on mania, depression, causes, treatments, medication, therapy, mental health services, etc could be expressed. Neither Dylan (who has been diagnosed as Bipolar and who has received many different treatments and both been on and come off medication) nor Guy (who has provided psychological services for people with the diagnosis) had fixed views about these issues. They were, however, happy to share their experiences and help to structure the group so that participants could get what they wanted from coming along.

The topics on the
flyer included: Is bipolar an illness like physical illnesses? Is bipolar “just who I am”…a core aspect of people’s personality? Whilst medication can be part of the solution, can it also sometimes be part of the problem? Can mania be thought of as a reaction to stress? How important is sleep in avoiding manic states? When people come off medication are the rebound effects sometimes interpreted as ‘relapse’ rather than withdrawal? What do people find helpful when in manic or depressive states? How challenging can it be to live with someone diagnosed as bipolar? What are the good things about being manic? Is the middle ground always best? This was not meant to be an exhaustive list - participants were encouraged to identify areas to explore that were of interest and relevance to them.

The first session offered all twelve of us an opportunity to introduce ourselves and say something about why we had come along. A list of group aims was created that shaped how subsequent sessions were devised. We emphasised that groups like this work best where people feel safe enough to freely express their views and that it was unlikely that everyone would have the same view on contentious subjects like medication, hospitalisation, diagnosis, underlying causes, etc. - for the group to work well it would be important that we each respect each other’s views, even when they are very different from our own.

Subsequent sessions looked at topics such as
different views of bipolarity; stress-vulnerabilty models; the good and bad things about being manic; the rise in number of people diagnosed as bipolar and what might be fuelling that; how diagnosis works; the challenges for people who live with someone who is bipolar; and helpful pointers from experts in the field. In one session we invited a pharmacist in to help us discuss medications, in another a partner of someone who experiences extreme highs and lows and in another a psychologist from a specialist bipolar service. We generated our own list of the good and bad things about becoming manic and our own tips for coping with mania .

Feedback from the last session of Bipolar Explorers

Participants agreed that the seven aims that they highlighted at the start of the course had largely been met (i.e.
To explore issues with others and get other people’s takes on things; To learn about bipolar and access information; To learn how to spot mania/realise when I’m liable to go high or low; To learn how to manage depressive and manic experiences; To think about the impacts of experiences such as the menopause and childbirth; To think about how my behaviour impacts on others; To explore ‘What is the norm?’)

People felt the group had helped them have some clarity about their ideas of what ‘bipolar’ is to them e.g. said they did not feel so lost or helpless regarding their experiences. One person stated that ‘it is a condition not a disease’, triggered by outside things not just inside factors. There were differences of opinion about whether it is genetic or not, or how important genes might be, with it feeling okay to have differing viewpoints. Most participants identified stress as the main causal factor, with a need for each individual to identify what stresses them and how they can reduce that stress.

Some participants felt the group had helped to open their eyes to differences between group members, as well as similarities. One person commented: ‘I used to think I had little in common with other bipolar people, but now I feel I do.’ Some people felt less alone. Some said that being open with each other had been very helpful. Dylan being so open right from the start about his own experiences (good and bad) had helped this to happen.

By the end several people said they felt more knowledgeable about medications and different theories about how medications can both help and hinder people. Most decided to stay on their mediation but two people started to come off, doing so in a planned, step-by-step way, with the support of their doctors.

People appreciated greatly the outside speakers who brought in their own expertise. Mental health professionals were recognised as not having all the answers but having some knowledge that people can learn from. The handouts were seen as helpful (
see Reading List).

Some members felt the group had been more helpful than one-to-one sessions with mental health professionals as “other group members know what it is like – this has been such a relief.” And whilst numbers in the group had gotten smaller as the weeks passed by (for a number of reasons - a couple of people got jobs, a couple found it hard to keep coming due to physical and mental health difficulties), at the end the group still felt very interactive with enough different viewpoints to learn from.

The venue was seen as accessible, friendly and informal, with the café useful to meet in beforehand. The only criticism was the changing of rooms, with the upstairs rooms preferred. The Lantern was much preferred to mental health service premises.

At the end group members expressed a wish to stay in touch and were keen to have follow-up meetings at The Lantern. This has carried on with a subgroup of people meeting on a bimonthly basis to talk about how they have been getting on. Currently we are planning to put on a training event for other people who might want to spend a day discussing issues covered on the course.

Guy Holmes 2012.

Bipolar Explorers Poster