Debunking myths about bipolar

Social worker Declan Henry has written a ‘lay person’s’ book which he hopes will encourage debate about bipolar disorder. Shelley Marsden finds out more…

Despite huge advances, much is still to be learned about bipolar disorder. Declan Henry, a social worker from County Sligo based outside London, has come across many people over the years with the illness (he began his career working with homeless people in the West of London, and for the last six years has worked with young offenders).

However, it was witnessing the slow but steady deterioration of an Irish friend with the condition, and the confused diagnosis and treatment she has received within the mental system, that led him to writing Why Bipolar. He likens the transformation of the lively, assertive person he once knew into a perfectly nice but ‘drugged’ person as a slow death.

“We’ve been friends for thirty-odd years”, says Declan, who studied at Goldsmith’s and Kings College, London, “so I knew her before she ever entered the mental health system. Over the years, I’ve seen her misdiagnosed time and time again; her current diagnosis is bipolar disorder, but she was, amongst other things, diagnosed at one stage with schizophrenia. I’ve seen her go through hospitalisation after hospitalisation, taking so many different drugs – they change so often. It’s terrible. Surely this can’t be medically, or ethically, correct?”

Declan was galvanised further after speaking to others who, like his friend, were treated like “guinea pigs”, their lives resembling a daily rollercoaster as they were given various medications to try, unsure of what the results might be. Though he doesn’t profess to be an expert – in fact he professes the opposite – Declan wants readers touched by the condition, or friends and relatives of those affected, to be reminded that there are non-medical alternatives to popping pills.

He says:“I know for a lot of people that have been on psychiatric treatment for a long time, they can’t just stop, go cold turkey; that could be extremely damaging. I’m not giving medical advice here – I’m just showing real examples of people that are using alternatives, through better health, exercise and diet. This is something I would truly encourage”.

Declan hopes the book will also dispel some popular myths about the condition, namely that it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain, a neurological kink that forces people to act and feel the way they do, producing the famous highs and deep lows of bipolar. He argues that there is no scientific evidence to support this theory, and that professionals in healthcare and beyond will admit when pushed that they have no idea what causes bipolar disorder.

Declan does argue, instead, that the common denominator in many cases of people with bipolar disorder seems to be a traumatic life experience. For Why Bipolar?, he interviewed 26 different case studies across Ireland and the UK, and each one, he says, had undergone some kind of trauma. In some cases it was obvious, in others he had to dig deeper, but in every one it was there, be it sexual abuse (in the case of his friend), death of a loved one or some other more subtle incident.

The book is divided into three parts, the first as Declan calls it being the ‘medical chapter’. He explains: “I’m, not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be, if anything I’m writing this book as a lay person. This section is factual and it tells people what the condition is, and charts its history from the 1930s to the current day, including the name change it underwent in the 1980s (it used to be known as ’manic depression’).”

Part two consists of 26 life stories of people living with bipolar in both Ireland and the UK; interviews Declan carried out over a two year period. The third part of the book asks questions about the ‘chemical age’, and wonders if there are alternatives to psychotropic drugs bearing in mind that psychiatrists dole out an abundant amount of medication to almost every patient.

The book also tackles the sensitive issue of suicide, which Declan believes is closely linked to the taking of anti-depressants: “Nearly every suicide I read or hear about these days that the victim was taking antidepressants at the time of his/her death. This is hardly surprising given the fact that one of the side-effects of the newer SSRI antidepressants is suicidal ideation but either people don’t know this fact or they choose to ignore it based on the vast number of people currently taking antidepressants.”

For the full article, see the Irish World (issue 21 Sept 2013).

Why Bipolar? (Squirrel Publishing, 2013) is out now. See for more.

Helpful organisations

MIND – Visit or call 0300 123 3393.

Bipolar UK – Visit or call 020 7931 6480.

Depression Alliance – Visit or call 0845 123 23 20.


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