• Jenny Stallard

One woman's mission to end the stigma around bipolar

I 'bumped into’ Sarah Owen in a Facebook group for women in the media, when she posted about her book Bipolar Disorder - The Ultimate Guide. We arranged to speak to mark World Bipolar Day 2021, and today, on World Bipolar Day 2022, I'm sharing some of her insights.

Sarah has personal experience of freelancing as well as living with family members with bipolar, and in the episode, she shares advice for freelancers who have been recently diagnosed, as well as those living with bipolar for longer.

Starting her career as a journalist, Sarah began at Cosmopolitan in 1994 until going freelance three years later. Over three decades she has written health features for a wide range of publications including The Sunday Times, The Express, The Daily Mail, Marie Claire and Psychologies, and created lots of online content (for, among others, Boots, Aviva, Asthma UK and British Heart Foundation).

Sarah explains how she came to write the book with her cousin, Amanda: “Amanda’s mum and my dad were siblings. The reason we wrote the book in the first place is because we discovered that her mum had bipolar. My dad had bipolar. We don't know for certain, but just from the stories that have filtered down through the family. It seems like our shared grandfather had bipolar. My sister has bipolar. Amanda herself has Cyclothymia, which is a mild form of bipolar. More recently, my son has been diagnosed with bipolar, so four generations of our family have bipolar, and obviously there's a huge genetic component.”

The book was published in 2008. “We wrote it because we had so many questions and obviously as a writer and Amanda as a writer as well, and we just felt like all the years of pain and struggle and challenges that our families had been through, that somehow we wanted to turn that pain into something more positive,” Sarah shared.

The mission, she told me, was to help erase the stigma around bipolar. If you’re someone who is still wondering what it is, Sarah gave an explanation, adding that it can often be misdiagnosed as depression (which is known as unipolar depression).

“Considering that one in 50 people in the UK have bipolar, it's very likely we all know someone with the condition, but I think it's also quite likely that there's a lot of misunderstanding as to what it actually is. It is a form of depression where mood swings are a big feature. So someone can go very low into depression, which exactly mirrors unipolar depression in a lot of the features. So someone would feel very down and unmotivated and tired. And that's what can often be misdiagnosed as depression, because people often go to their GP with that first symptom of depression."

We also spoke about being freelance and managing bipolar.

Sarah explains: “You can have episodes of being normal when you need to go high or low and then you can have periods of stability and those periods of stability can be a month a year, 10 years, 15 years. It really is very unique to each individual. So, someone with bipolar, when they're stable, obviously they would just get on with their freelance life in the same way. However, what you can do and I think this applies to me, even without a diagnosis, is look at all my protective factors, as can someone with a diagnosis. You can try to stop an episode coming on to help prevent it.”

Medication and therapy are two key things to check in with if you feel you need to, she says. “And then all of the self-care things - I call them the Holy Trinity! Sleep is the first one, then diet and exercise. It's not rocket science, but there is science behind why all these things are so important.”

“The way I look at it is that there are no them or us. We're all on the spectrum. And someone like me with my genetic family tree, I really have to look at how I'm feeling and be self-aware of if I'm taking on too much work because obviously my genetic risk of becoming unwell, a mood disorder is much higher than someone without anyone in their family."

The World Bipolar Day Virtual Conference runs today (March 30 2022) from 6pm to 9pm. The theme of this year’s conference is LIVE WELL WITH BIPOLAR.

To listen to the full episode with Sarah, head to Apple Podcasts (and leave a review if you enjoy it!)

Click here to buy Sarah and Amanda's book

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