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Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Written by: Dr. Joseph Leong Jern-Yi

Understanding Bipolar & Schizophrenia

Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were considered severe mental illnesses with no recovery in the past. This is not true in modern psychiatry as we have developed more effective treatments such as medications (psycho-pharmacology) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) which help patients improve their quality of life as well as reduce symptoms and restore function.

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may have similar symptoms which are disturbances in thinking, feelings and behaviour. The major difference is that bipolar disorder is classified as a mood disorder whereas schizophrenia is classified as a psychotic disorder. Mental healthcare professionals make diagnoses based on reports of patients, caregivers, or other information sources as well as observations made during the assessment interview.

Experts have also formulated that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may be a spectrum disorder with schizophrenia on one end and bipolar disorder on the other end with schizoaffective disorder in the middle of the spectrum.

What is more important however is not the exact diagnosis alone but rather the identification of symptoms so that treatment can be effectively targeted at the relief of the symptoms, restoring function and improving quality of life. This targeted symptom approach has proven to be one of the most effective ways of helping persons recover from these brain conditions.

Let’s discuss some of the common symptoms –

Delusions, which are untrue, unshakable, and unshared beliefs which can exist in both brain conditions.

For example, delusions of persecution which are beliefs of being targeted, being followed, being sabotaged (persecutory) are common in schizophrenia while delusions of grandiosity such as believing that they are particularly important persons and have special powers or ability to save the world (grandiose delusions) are more common in bipolar disorder. For persons with schizoaffective disorder, they might have both persecutory and grandiose delusions at the same time. It also has an underlying co-occurring mood disorder.  

Hallucinations which are perceptual disturbances such as hearing voices which are not heard by others, seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things which are not present are more likely to happen in schizophrenia.

Severe mood swings and manic episodes where the person has fast speech and high energy levels are associated with abnormal spending, socialising, exercising, or expanding businesses with the need for very little sleep over a few days and weeks are more likely to happen in bipolar disorder.

More than half a century ago, most persons suffering from these brain conditions were isolated and confined to asylums as there were no effective treatments until the discovery of medications that can change brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters which are chemicals responsible for brain and other bodily functions were discovered. Noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine disturbances were more likely causes in bipolar disorder while dopamine imbalance was a more probable cause of schizophrenia. See https://dana.org/article/neurotransmitters/

 

The Help Of Modern Medicine

Modern psychopharmacology offers an array of medications which can act on various neurotransmitter sites in the brain. Several medications and several rounds of adjustment and fine-tuning may often be needed to achieve stabilisation with medications with relief of symptoms. This is best done collaboratively with the patient, psychiatrist, and caregiver at the consultation with all the medications brought in for review.

Adjusting to a new medication through an effective therapeutic trial may take at least 2 weeks, starting with the lowest dose and increasing dosing to a maximised symptom relief dose over 2 months. 

Medications need to be taken daily to be effective, and this is best done using a pill box and with supervision from a loved one. Medications are served by nurses in the inpatient hospital setting who ensure that the correct dose is directly observed to be taken by the patient – however, this is often lacking in the outpatient setting leading to the return of the symptoms causing distress and dysfunction.

 

Bipolar & Schizophrenia Treatment Methods

Comparing bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to other brain conditions may be helpful in understanding how one can better achieve remission and recovery. 

Epilepsy is a brain condition where there are electrical firing of neurons causing disturbances in thinking, feeling and behaviour. To stay in control of oneself, the doctor may recommend various combinations of anti-epileptic medications to prevent another seizure. In fact, the model of kindling in epilepsy has been used to understand mental health treatment in this highly readable resource essay – https://aeon.co/essays/should-the-kindling-concept-direct-mental-health-treatment

If you speak to someone with experience with epilepsy, they will tell you about ‘warning signs’ and the ‘confusional state’ after a breakthrough seizure.

Similarly, for those struggling with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, one becomes more aware of ‘warning signs’, and ‘confusional states’ through direct feedback from loved ones who are observant and psycho-educated by healthcare professionals. Charting, monitoring and sharing your experience are key to success in achieving remission and recovery. Use this mood chart and share it with your mental healthcare professionals for more in-depth analysis – https://loricalabresemd.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Personalized-Mood_Chart.pdf

Symptoms management starts with monitoring your symptoms and the response to the treatment – what makes it better, what makes it worse, whether it is mild, moderate or severe. The frequency, intensity and severity can be charted so that effective treatment of psycho-pharmacology (active use of medications) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) can be targeted to achieve the best outcome for you.

 

Recovery Is Possible

Your mental healthcare professional can coach and pace you so that it will not be overwhelming. Recovery starts with taking it one day at a time. Be gentle with yourself. Learn to trust and entrust your healing to people who care about you. Learning from feedback as well as charting, monitoring and sharing your experience with loved ones – trusted family or friends or co-workers greatly enhance effectiveness.

Atomic habits by James Clear is an excellent book which illustrates the importance of charting, monitoring and shaping your habits, on the premise of improving 1% daily leading to more than 365% improvement in one year. This is Youtube illustrates how that can happen – “How to become 37.78 times better at anything”. 

There are many services available at Promises Healthcare and Community Partners which can help reduce symptoms, restore function, and improve quality of life. Recovery is possible and becomes a reality with appropriate support and adequate skill training. With the right help and support, persons in recovery can live meaningful and satisfying lives.

Here are some real stories that illustrate many facets of mental health and recovery:

Bipolar Disorder: You Too Can Walk In Recovery

Bipolar Disorder: You Too Can Walk In Recovery

With the recent revelation of American rapper, Kanye West, being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, the condition has been brought into the spotlight. The term ‘Bipolar’ (meaning “two poles”) signifies the polar opposites of emotional highs and lows. As the name suggests, Bipolar Disorder is characterised by episodic, extreme mood swings in which the individual experiences intense mania and severe depression. Formerly known as ‘Manic-depressive Illness’, the disorder is a fairly common, yet serious mental health condition. 

 

For individuals struggling with the disorder, manic episodes can last days to weeks and are often associated with hyperactivity, an irritable mood, rapid thoughts, increased recklessness, or an exaggerated sense of self-esteem and power. On the other hand, a depressive episode can last weeks to months. In this phase, individuals may experience increased restlessness, a loss of interest in activities (including those that they usually enjoy), poor concentration or disrupted sleep patterns. In more severe cases, these people may also possess suicidal thoughts and behaviours. 

 

In order to help us better understand the condition, we interviewed Deborah Seah, a peer support specialist at Psaltcare.  

Deborah Seah

Deborah started experiencing extreme mood swings in her early primary school years. Having known that her paternal family had a history of mental illness, she identified that her condition was most likely to be genetic. However, she had chosen to suffer in silence until 2 decades later, when she sought psychiatric help for postnatal depression and work-related burnout. At that point, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder as well as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For Deborah, the disorder reigned control over her life – straining her relationships with her loved ones. Before her diagnosis, others could not understand why she was being so unpredictable, and her erratic behaviour had unfortunately caused numerous misunderstandings.

 

“It was very challenging to manage my mood swings at the tender age of 8,” she shared. “When I was experiencing my highs, I would talk very fast, have tremendous amounts of energy, get very excited, or become easily irritable and agitated. On the other hand, when I was experiencing my lows, I would feel very sad and experience low energy levels. I could cry for hours or days over trivial matters and be even suicidal at times. The experience of dealing with bipolar disorder consisted of feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and loneliness as I could not predict or control my emotions and energy.” Deborah’s experience with bipolar disorder led her to face an identity crisis – being confused over her contrasting “personalities”, and not knowing which was the real her. 

 

Just like any other mental condition, there are bound to be misconceptions of the Bipolar Disorder, especially if people don’t open up and address it. One such misconception is that individuals struggling with Bipolar Disorder are incapable of managing their mood swings. However, Deborah takes this as an opportunity to debunk such a sentiment: “After a certain point in time, I’ve arrived at a higher level of self-awareness towards my early warning signs, and it has enabled me to gain self-mastery over my condition. When my mood or energy level starts to dip, I’m aware of what could effectively help me to increase my mood and energy. When my mood or energy level is overly high, I know that I need to be extra mindful of not going into overdrive.”

 

While on the road to recovery, Deborah made a commendable effort in helping herself cope with the disorder. This included reading up on the condition proactively to ensure that she could better achieve self-mastery. Of course, finding a silver lining and staying positive is essential over the course of recovery. Keeping up with articles on others’ success stories and breakthroughs helped her to stay hopeful and confident that recovery is not impossible. 

 

Being highly motivated to make headway towards recovery, Deborah knew that she needed to make changes to her lifestyle. For starters, Deborah:

 

  1. ensures that she keeps to a good sleep routine and to have sufficient rest
  2. adopts a healthy lifestyle by having a balanced diet and staying active through exercise
  3. stays in a conducive environment for recovery where all potential triggers are removed as much as possible.

 

She also notes that her Christian faith has played an essential part. Daily prayer and spiritual devotion helped her to calm her mind and provided her with the much-needed inner peace. However, Deborah stresses that one should not brush aside the idea of peer support or psychiatric intervention. The active use of medications coupled with peer support contributed to the turning point in her recovery, and restored any lost hope when the future was seemingly bleak. Connecting to like-minded peers can help one explore new coping strategies and stay on a personal wellness plan.  

 

“Upon knowing my diagnosis, my family took the initiative to purchase books on Bipolar Disorder to understand my condition better,” Deborah recounted. “My family gave me space when I needed it and continually held hope for me even when I gave up on myself. They didn’t pressurise me to make quick progress on my recovery but assured me that they genuinely only wanted me to be happy and that is all that mattered to them. I was deeply touched by their love and concern for me and felt motivated to work hard on my recovery because I realised that they would always be affected whenever I’m suffering.” Through her experience, Deborah holds a strong belief that the hope and support from her loved ones had an immeasurable, significant impact on her, and encourages those who are also supporting their loved ones with mental conditions to stay hopeful. 

 

As of today, Deborah has made promising progress and is well on her way towards achieving mental wellness. After consistently attending a Recovery and Wellness Sustenance (RWS) Workshop at IMH, Deborah graduated with a certificate of participation. Recognising that she benefited much from the workshop, she returned as a Mentor to co-train the subsequent class of peers. In addition, Deborah also completed a module conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) and was involved in the facilitation for the 3rd and current 5th batch of Peer Support Specialist (PSS) training. She said, “It gave me confidence and reinforced my own recovery as I pay it forward and encourage my peers in their recovery journey. Moreover, it has equipped me with effective coping skills to deal with my mental health condition and it brought my recovery to a higher level.”

 

To end off, Deborah hopes to pass on an important message to the readers: “To me, there is no shame to be on psychiatric medication or seeking psychiatric help. Just like how people with diabetic conditions need to be on insulin while some people who are asthmatic need to be on Ventolin, people with psychiatric conditions need to take psychiatric medication too. Resilience in Recovery requires these 3 things: Courage – to embrace the past, Gratitude – for the gifts of the present, and Hope – to make the most of the future. I believe that everyone can recover from a mental health challenge, as long as he or she does not give up hope because I am the Evidence of Recovery myself! Everyone recovers at their own pace, just like every flower blooms in its season – let us hold the hope for our loved ones and for those who are battling mental health challenges by cheering them on and being their source of support to believe that recovery is indeed possible.”

 


References:

https://www.healthhub.sg/a-z/diseases-and-conditions/49/topics_bipolar_disorder (Accessed 01/08/2020)

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml (Accessed 01/08/2020)

Photo by Samuel Clara on Unsplash