Today, 30th March, is World Bipolar Day. Commemoration of the day is an initiative of the International Bipolar Foundation (IBF) in collaboration with the Asian Network of Bipolar Disorder (ANBD) and the International Society for Bipolar Disorder (ISBD).

World Bipolar Day (WBD) is celebrated on this day because it is the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. He was posthumously diagnosed as likely having a bipolar condition.
WBD is different from the World Mental Health Day (WMHD) which is celebrated on 10th October. While both share the goal of creating awareness and ending stigma associated with these health conditions, WBD focuses specifically on bipolar in order to raise the profile of this particular condition.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Sometimes referred to Bipolar Affective Disorder, it is a mental condition marked by alternating periods of elation (highs or mania) and depression (lows). One of its most prominent symptoms is a sudden change in mood. People with bipolar disorder sometimes experience a loss of interest or pleasure in activities, hopelessness, guilt, impulsivity, difficulty falling asleep or excess sleepiness, self-harm, restlessness, fatigue, and rapid or frenzied speaking. While many individuals may experience these signs and symptoms, those with bipolar disorder experience them on a regular basis and only a psychiatrist or psychologist can provide a proper diagnosis. The worldwide prevalence of bipolar spectrum disorder is 2.4% while in Uganda it is at 4.9%.

Having a bipolar condition does not mean one is unable to live a normal or successful life. Bipolar Strong, for example, shares many stories of individuals successfully living with bipolar disorder. It was encouraging to read the story of Sarah Tushemereirwe in the Sunday Monitor (25th March), one of Uganda’s leading newspapers.

By sharing her personal story, she created awareness about bipolar disorder and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Tushemereirwe’s story shows that support and peer groups are crucial in managing all mental health issues, including bipolar disorder. In addition to providing a forum to advocate collectively, peer groups also help curb the loneliness that individuals often face when they try to take on the condition alone.

Senior Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Margaret Mungherera (RIP), for example, encouraged the formation of groups for peer support. Heartsounds Uganda and My Story are some of organizations that have been instrumental in helping people with the bipolar condition in Uganda.

Bipolar conditions require more than just medication for treatment. According to Evas Natukunda who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009 while she was studying, peer support was quite helpful during her low moments. Peers from Heartsounds Uganda were at hand to help her get back on track. She credits the peers at Heartsounds for encouraging her to complete her studies and find employment. In an interview with Esther Oluka of Daily Monitor on 8 January 2018, Evas narrates her story beginning when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Evas and Sarah are strong and their stories have helped very many people. On World Bipolar Day we should be hearing more of such stories.

Prof. Seggane Musisi, a senior consultant psychiatrist and researcher, also encourages peer support groups. He has been a guest at the Heartsounds film club and contributed to discussions on the films viewed by the group, some of which have included bipolar themes. He was kind enough to remind us about WBD: “#BipolarStrong is creating a great conversation around bipolar disorder. The International Bipolar Foundation (IBF) should be thanked for the massive awareness,” he said.

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