In the shadowy light of the Westminster Cathedral Hall, 40 years ago, a group of about 100 people gathered to discuss what collective effort could be made to support people with manic depression, the now out-dated term for what today we call bipolar disorder, or bipolar. From that meeting, Bipolar UK was born and in its own way, made healthcare history.

Stigma in the 1980s

It is difficult for anyone under the age of 30 to envisage what life was like for people living with a serious psychiatric condition back then. Mental illness was a taboo subject, ignored or actively supressed by government, employers, the media and public opinion. To admit to it was a recipe for social isolation and discrimination.

Psychiatric care was confined to in-patient hospital treatment, exclusively involving heavy doses of medication. The idea that ‘the patient’ could do anything to improve their own condition themselves, or had any agency in their treatment, was either totally unconsidered or sneered at by experts. Community care was non-existent.

Early discussions

This damaging, excluding and unsupportive status quo was reflected in some of the early discussions about what the new charity should aim to achieve. Some people among the founders felt that the organisation should be exclusively confined to raising funds for a medical cure. Others felt it should be exclusively confined to supporting and advising carers. The idea that people with bipolar should engage in self-help and peer support or, God forbid, actually run the charity themselves was seen as not only radical but possibly fatal to the organisation’s prospects.

In the event, like any democracy, the views of the majority of the founders prevailed. A self-help and mutual empowerment ethic was adopted and what resulted was little short of a revolution in thinking and practice. Again it is difficult for anyone who did not live through those years to appreciate how isolated people with bipolar were.

Is anyone out there?

When Sheila Woodand and Philomena Germing first placed advertisements calling for response in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph respectively, the message was essentially ‘is anyone out there?’. A total lack of publicly available information about the prevalence of bipolar made it hard to anticipate the numbers that might respond.

In the event, the adverts and the early publicity put out by the newly formed charity resulted in us all being inundated, with first hundreds and then thousands of replies coming from people around the whole of the UK testifying to the extent of the need.

The birth of a charity

In the first three years of our existence, membership of the charity boosted 30-fold and a series of open meetings held in cities nationwide triggered in turn a network of self-help groups, supported and coordinated by the national charity.

The foundations of the charity today were therefore laid very early on, first from the dining room tables and sitting room chairs of the early founders and then from a tiny volunteer-run office in South West London.

Acknowledgement and celebration of the revolutionary thinking of the founders, now taken for granted throughout the whole UK and overseas mental health community, is a major focus of the 40th anniversary celebrations we are organising throughout this year.

A lasting legacy

Sadly very few of the original people in this story are still alive to see the day. Both Sheila and Philomena have passed as have most of the early trustees and activists.

The extraordinary and totally voluntary effort of Bob Le Baigue in setting up and coordinating the first wave of self-help groups in the 1980s and the leadership provided by Alan Mitchell, third chair of the charity, in spreading the message UK-wide during the years of rapid growth over the same period, have almost passed beyond memory, as has Carol Fisher’s creative role as editor of the charity’s early quarterly bulletin Pendulum.

That’s why I’m writing this blog – to acknowledge and honour their legacy as Bipolar UK celebrates an incredible 40 years of peer support for people affected by bipolar. I am proud to be a founding trustee and a statutory member of the charity as we continue to be a leading resource for people with bipolar and their supporters and friends, as well as a progressive thinker in the current debate about the value of self-help and peer support that we pioneered all these years ago.

Michel Syrett was a founding trustee and second chair of Bipolar UK and remains a statutory member of the charity. He also met his wife Suzy, a speaker, at a conference organised by Bipolar UK in 2005. 

Last updated: 9 February 2023