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Bipolar explained - World Bipolar Day 30th March

1.3 million people in the UK have bipolar. That's 1 in 50 people. [1]

Bipolar is one of the UK’s most common, long-term conditions. There are almost as many people living with bipolar as cancer (2.4%)! It’s also more than twice as common as dementia, epilepsy, autism, arthritis, and learning disabilities. [2]

It takes on average 9 years to get a correct diagnosis of bipolar and there is a misdiagnosis an average of 3.5 times. Shocking, eh? [3]

So, what is bipolar disorder?

Formerly called manic depression – it’s a severe mental health condition that comes with mood swings and changes in energy including manic highs and depressive lows. The majority of people with bipolar experience alternating episodes of mania and depression, but can actually feel quite well in between these highs and lows.

Anyone can develop bipolar. It can be genetic, or it can be event-based but often, the symptoms show up and then reoccur when work, studies, family or emotional pressures are at their greatest. It can also be triggered by childbirth or menopause.

Symptoms of bipolar can become so severe that they interrupt our day-to-day lives, like our ability to go to work, do the school run or shop for food. However, those with bipolar still experience periods of feeling pretty good, by managing the condition with medication, therapy and self-management strategies. The key to coping with it is taking back control! It can be challenging to come to terms with a diagnosis of bipolar (or any severe mental health condition), but accepting it gives the power back to the individual!

“I have mood swings, does that mean I have bipolar?”

Everyone has good and bad days and experiences mood swings. Ever gone to make a cuppa and realised there are no teabags left or someone used the last of the milk? It’s one of those highly irritating things that can dampen our mood, or like how receiving some bad news can quickly derail our contentment. Someone without bipolar will usually experience mood swings that score between 4 and 6 on The Bipolar UK Mood Swing scale [4].

The Bipolar UK mood scale reflects mood ranging from 0 to 10, and helps those struggling, to monitor their experiences and help to gauge whether they might be dealing with bipolar.

Those with bipolar, see mood swings go above stable levels anywhere between a 6 and 10 (during manic episodes), or fall below 4 to as low as 0 (during depressive episodes). These periods of extreme mood usually last longer than a couple of hours or days, instead lasting weeks or months. Typically, when untreated manic episodes can last 3-6 months, while depressive episodes can be anywhere from 6-12 months.

Breaking down the stigma

World Bipolar Day is all about raising awareness about the illness and breaking down the stigma that can cause shame, embarrassment and discrimination for those with bipolar disorder. So let’s myth bust some of the common misconceptions about bipolar disorder!

Mania is fun - it’s just feeling really happy

Although episodes of feeling ‘high’ might sound like a barrel of laughs, in truth most people with bipolar do not enjoy the experience. Ever had one too many coffees or energy drinks making us feel buzzed but jittery, fidgety or even on edge? Some people with bipolar describe mania the same way, although we’re raring to go it can be uncomfortable and a feeling that we often want to shake off asap - it can be stressful for the person experiencing the episode and others around them.

People with bipolar disorder can’t work or be successful

The symptoms of bipolar can be severe and can make it difficult to maintain our usual day-to-day activities. However, when treated and under management, people with bipolar are able to maintain pretty ordinary lives, including having a job. With more employers and places of work recognising this, more accommodating steps can be taken to help someone with bipolar maintain a job, as they would with any physical long-term illness, such as arthritis. The structure can be really beneficial, and as not all jobs are 9-5 (which may not be for everyone - bipolar diagnosis or not) there are many jobs that can work really well even if someone is still symptomatic.

If you suffer from bipolar disorder, all moods are symptoms

Just because depression, mania, irritability etc. can all be symptoms of the disorder, it doesn’t mean that every mood is a result of bipolar. We all experience mood variation as a natural part of how the brain works, and this is just as true for those with bipolar disorder, particularly if there is a cause for emotion. Like running out of tea bags or milk, it can still be irritating for those with bipolar as it is for those without. Or having an argument, the frustrated or snappy responses aren’t necessarily down to bipolar, all of us can get like that during an argument!

If we’re concerned about ourselves or another, keeping a record of our mood, it’s fluctuations and experiences can be useful to establish differences between typical mood swings experienced by everyone, and more extreme mood swings like those of bipolar disorder. It can be helpful to take this record to any medical or psychiatric appointments to help get a diagnosis.


Before we go: This World Bipolar Day spread the word, raise awareness and break down that stigma in whatever ways we can; do some research, ask questions, share real information and use the #worldbipolarday hashtag to take part in the movement!


1. Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England (2014).

2. Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, (2014) and Quality and Outcomes Framework – Prevalence, England (2015-16).

3. Bipolar Disorder: How long does it usually take for someone to be diagnosed for bipolar disorder? (2006). S. Nassir Ghaemi.




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