A Singapore Mental Health Study found that 1.2 percent of the adult population in Singapore has suffered from bipolar disorder during their lifetime, and that the condition occurs most commonly in people aged 18 to 34.

According to Dr Mok Yee Ming, senior consultant and chief of the Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Department of General Psychiatry & Head, Mood Disorders Unit, we still don’t know exactly what causes it, but we do know that a multitude of factors–including genetics and environment–contribute to it.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder suffer from episodes that can last weeks or even months if left untreated, and significantly affect their day-to-day lives. The first type is a manic or hypomanic (which is less severe) episode, where your mood is elevated, and you have increased energy.

Symptoms include talking excessively, being easily distracted, and expressing grandiose or unrealistic ideas. Those going through an episode of mania may experience a decreased need for sleep, sometimes running on just a couple hours a day, and become very impulsive. It’s not unusual for bipolar patients to get into debt due to excessive shopping during an episode of mania.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are depressive episodes, where a person experiences lower energy levels and is overwhelmed by feelings of sadness. They may also suffer from a lack of appetite, lose interest in things they used to enjoy, and harbour ideas of suicide or self-harm. There are also mixed episodes, where the patient experiences both mania and depression.

“The symptoms may alternate rapidly, from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour,” says Dr Mok.

Treatment for the condition

Treatment for bipolar disorder comes in the form of both medication and psychosocial therapy. Mood stabilisers, antipsychotics and antidepressants are prescribed as part of the treatment for episodes. There’s also maintenance therapy, which uses medications and psychosocial interventions to prevent further episodes.

Going for therapy can also help patients recognise early symptoms so they can seek treatment. It’s also useful for identifying triggers so patients can implement lifestyle changes to avoid them.

“With the appropriate treatment and follow-up, it can be well-controlled. People with bipolar disorder can and do lead fulfilling lives,” says Dr Mok. He also adds that support is “equally important” in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Studies have shown that peer involvement can have a significant positive effect on those who are dealing with mental health

What it’s like living with bipolar disorder 

Carrie*, a 30-year-old PR professional, began battling bi-polar disorder four years ago. She was prescribed steroids and muscle relaxants to suppress pain caused by an autoimmune disease.

After two weeks, she stopped taking the relaxants and relied only on the steroids, and that’s when her behaviour started to change.

“I was sleeping for only about a couple of hours a day, I ate a lot, and I spoke very fast,” she says. She went through a manic episode that lasted for over a week, but she didn’t realise it then. “My career was going very well at that time, so I felt like I could do anything.”

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Her family could tell something was off, so they brought her to IMH where she was admitted for a week. After she was discharged, she had to be on bed rest for six months.

“The first three months were very difficult. I couldn’t remember much because I was so sedated. I was just so exhausted all the time,” says Carrie.

For Carrie, the silver lining was realising how much she had to be thankful for–her supportive friends and family members who had shown her much-needed patience and kindness.

“When I was manic, I would call people in the middle of the night to ask how they are doing,” she recalls. Whenever that happened, her family would do a follow-up call to apologise on her behalf.

“I lost a lot of friends, but I also weeded out a lot of toxic people. I really saw who my true friends were,” says Carrie.

If you suspect a friend could be suffering, here are a few things you can do: Listen closely to their feelings and try not to give solutions. Instead gently advise them to get help early, and be supportive. Check in on them when possible, to see how they are coping.

These helplines are available in Singapore:

  • Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-221-4444
  • Silver Ribbon: 63861928, 67424190, 63853714