By: Matthew Ratz, Moderator and Peer Recovery Specialist
Getting a bipolar disorder diagnosis, or struggling with symptoms even if you haven't been diagnosed, can leave you feeling all alone. You might be thinking, "I'm the only person this has ever happened to. No one understands what I'm going through." But that's just a story your mind is telling you. You are not alone.
There is power in numbers and the World Health Organization estimates that 45 million people worldwide are affected by bipolar disorder. Not only are you not alone, but there are also millions of people experiencing similar situations and symptoms as you. That's why online support groups for bipolar disorder are so important.
When we come together and share our stories, experiences, what's working and what's not, we help ourselves continue to take control and feel our best, and we help others do the same. And I use the word "we" because I am right there with you.
A little about my story
I'm not just the moderator of the Managing Bipolar and Living Your Best Life Online Peer Support Group, I am also a person living with a bipolar diagnosis.
At the age of seven, I started working with a clinician to manage my symptoms. Without going into all the details here, I had a long road to reaching the point that I am at today. I have ridden in the back of a cop car when struggling with suicidal ideation and I have been hospitalized for mental illness. I have experienced discrimination in the workplace because of my diagnosis and can relate to many of the stories I hear from others.
My parents were forcefully against medication so it was not a part of my treatment plan until I was 24 years old. I now see it as a key part of my treatment and what is helping keep me alive even though I know that is not the case for everyone.
Back in 2017, I became certified as a Peer Recovery Specialist to help advocate for others with mental illness and mental health challenges. This means I combine my own personal experience with additional training to be a resource for other people. Part of this work includes advocating for workplace accommodations for those living with mental illness.
I became a moderator for Pay What You Can Peer Support because I have personally experienced the difference it makes when you connect with others who understand. It is powerful to talk with a group of people all with similar symptoms who can help each other along the way.
Who is the bipolar peer support group for?
This group is for anyone experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder whether or not you have a diagnosis. We don't need to see a prescription or know that you've talked to a therapist or doctor. This group is simply to provide you support throughout your journey to help you manage your symptoms so you can enjoy your life.
Bipolar disorder used to be referred to as "manic depression" which is one of my favorite terms for the illness. It causes extreme mood swings, but what this actually looks like in real life can vary a lot from one person to the next.
Below are a few examples from Mayo Clinic of symptoms you may be experiencing. But please know that you don't have to be experiencing these symptoms to participate in the online support group.
During periods of mania and hypomania
Poor decision-making or engaging in risky behaviors
Increased energy or agitation
Decreased need for sleep
During periods of depressive episodes
Feeling sad, hopeless, empty or tearful
Losing interest in activities
Change in weight and appetite
Sleeping too much or struggling to sleep at all
Thinking about suicide
This is not by any means an all-inclusive list of symptoms you may experience. It's simply a brief overview of some of the things that people with bipolar experience. If you can relate to these symptoms or have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the good news is there are a lot of strategies that can help you manage your symptoms, and peer support can play an important role in your treatment plan.
Mental health treatment should be holistic
There are so many pieces to treatment plans that can help when you're living with bipolar disorder. This can include things like:
Changes to your diet and eating plan
Exercise and activity
Connecting with supportive people
There are so many ways to deal with mental wellness when living with bipolar disorder and the best approach for most people is a combination of all of the above. They all work together to support your mental health and how you're able to navigate your daily life.
Joining a peer support group can help you as you discover what strategies are going to work the best for you. And when you have a treatment plan that works, continuing to connect with peers can help you stick to your plan and make adjustments as needed.
When should you join an online support group for bipolar disorder?
There is no bad time to seek out connections with other people living with shared experiences. This group might have the word "bipolar" in the title, but you don't have to be diagnosed to participate in and benefit from the group. If you can identify with even some of the information shared above, you can benefit from connecting with others through a peer support group. The group can help you explore your symptoms and experiences to see what steps you can take next.
The human experience is a pretty common one yet we all perceive the world as if it's against us and we're all alone trying to push through it. Having a peer community like this group reinforces that you're not the only person dealing with this.
How peer support helps people living with bipolar disorder
As I shared above, it's easy to feel like you're all alone in your symptoms. You may not have anyone in your daily life who understands what you're feeling and experiencing. This makes it difficult to move forward and learn strategies that can help you reach a positive space or even a period of recovery.
That's where peer support comes into play. This group allows you to connect with others who "get it." You don't have to try to explain what it feels like because they already know. You don't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed (which you never should anyway) because we're all going through it together. Here are some of the ways an online bipolar support group can help:
You are reminded you're not alone. You will hear other people sharing personal experiences that let you know you're not alone in what you experience.
Learn to advocate for yourself. When you hear others share ways they are talking to their doctor or pursuing workplace accommodations it helps you see new ways you can advocate for yourself so you can live your best life.
Learn about treatment working for others. You may learn about a medication you can talk to your doctor about or a meditation strategy that is helping another person gain control of their symptoms. Hearing the real-life experiences of what is working for others with similar symptoms can help you learn new options to explore for yourself.
Motivation to get back on track. It might feel like your life has been derailed by mental illness, but you can get back on course. Hearing about what is working for others can motivate you to keep exploring the best options for yourself. It doesn't matter how many times you fall down as long as you get back up. I know that's cliché but it's true.
This is a positive group designed to create meaningful change
This is a strength-focused group. It's not about grieving your diagnosis. We focus on what is going well in your life, what you're proud of, what is working for you, and what you're looking forward to in the coming week. You have good qualities and skills that you can put to work in life. But if you don't learn to manage your symptoms, those good qualities won't matter. This group can help you get to a place where you can share all the good parts of yourself with the world.
This is a space where you can say, "Yes, I live with bipolar disorder. I take medication. I see a therapist. But, here are the choices I choose to make that are good for me. Here are the people that are supporting me and building me up. Here is what I'm looking forward to in my life."
It's ok if you struggle to see the positive right now; this group is designed to help you move to a place where you can focus on the good in your life instead of feeling stuck in a mental illness or diagnosis.
It's important for you to know that you are the expert in your health and wellness. Many of us like to put this "expert" status on the doctors and specialists that work with our illness. While they may be experts in understanding part of the treatment process, no one knows more about what you are feeling or experiencing than you.
You are not broken. You are not hopeless. And you are not alone. There are other people going through this along with you and this platform can help you connect with and learn from one another. I invite you to join me and your peers every Tuesday at 5:30 pm ET so you can learn to manage bipolar and live your best life. Register now for the next session.