July 10, 2023

Reflections from “Living Well with Bipolar Disorder”

NAMI Volunteer, Lily Johns pens her thoughts about the Prechter Program "Living Well with Bipolar Disorder" webinar. 

This article first appeared in NAMI Washtenaw County. 

As someone living with bipolar II, I often find myself getting caught up in the details of my bipolar; tracking daily symptoms, sleep patterns, or how I am doing with taking my medications. However, it is important to consider that managing my bipolar disorder isn’t only about reducing my symptoms and keeping up with my treatment plan, it’s also about living my life doing the things that I enjoy. In other words, ‘living well’ with bipolar disorder often means more than lessening your symptoms. This winter, I attended an event that made me reflect on this by highlighting the importance of centering conversations around wellness in the research and treatment of bipolar disorder.

The event, a webinar titled “Living Well with Bipolar Disorder”, was held this February by the Prechter Bipolar Research Program at the University of Michigan. In the first half of the webinar, Dr. Sarah Sperry of the Prechter Program led a conversation on this idea of wellness for folks living with bipolar disorder. To introduce the topic, Dr. Sperry discussed how living well with bipolar disorder is commonly conceptualized as an absence of symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, mania, hypomania). However, for people living with bipolar, this isn’t always representative of how they view their own health and wellness. A study by Morton et al. (2022) found that only 17% of people in the study reported that reducing their symptoms of bipolar was an important part of their wellness. Alternatively, most people highlighted other, more holistic, aspects of their life and sense of self as contributing to their wellness, including the ability to be independent or act according to their own will (86%); purpose in life (74%); getting through the day (81%); self-acceptance (73%); having a calm and relaxed presence (63%); following through on ideas and intentions (63%); having a sense of influence over the events in my life (75%); having positive relations with other (71%); and achieving personal growth (68%). However, 76% of people in the study reported that the healthcare they received for their bipolar disorder was mainly focused on minimizing symptoms. This shows how to many folks with bipolar disorder, living well and managing their bipolar means much more than a reduction of symptoms. And, because most healthcare settings consider symptom relief as the primary way to measure health and wellbeing, we are largely unable to capture these additional complexities of wellness in the existing framework.

Working to address this, Dr. Sperry highlighted ongoing research that she and other folks at the Prechter Program are leading that is working to develop a measure of wellness for bipolar disorder. This measure of wellness was developed alongside those with lived experience and centers their voices in what wellness means to them. The goal is for the measure to be implemented in both research and clinical settings and to be used to further the conversation around wellness and bipolar disorder.

Wanting to know more about these concepts, I met with Dr. Sperry to have a conversation about living well with bipolar disorder...

To read the rest of Lily John's article and conversation with Dr. Sarah Sperry, click here!