Bipolar UK is 40! Quite a milestone and an event which prompts me to reflect on the charity’s progress. I joined at the age of 47, which was 24 years after my diagnosis. I was fortunate to have been prescribed lithium and it worked incredibly well for me, allowing me to work, get married and have kids and – largely – not feel compelled to reveal my ‘mental illness’ to people I met. The only other person I knew with the condition was Kay Redfield Jamison whose revelatory memoir An Unquiet Mind reassured me that I could still do something with my life and contribute to society. If you haven’t read it you should; it’s beautifully written as well as incredibly moving and inspiring.

My time with Bipolar UK

Over the 15 years I’ve been involved with Bipolar UK I think I’ve sampled most areas of the charity’s operations. I’ve been in a peer support group; I’ve worked for the charity as a volunteer in the office and from home; I’ve been a Trustee and had the privilege of being Chair not once but twice! I used to write for and edit the magazine Pendulum and I’ve interviewed scores of members for my research at King’s College.

It was running workshops with Prof. Ian Jones for Bipolar UK members who wanted advice about having children safely that convinced me that this was a badly neglected area causing unnecessary suffering and that I should focus my PhD on it.

Research into women and bipolar is seriously neglected

Subsequently, I’ve recognised that other ‘women’s issues’ beside pregnancy and childbirth have a particular impact if you have bipolar: hormones generally but especially in relation to menstruation and menopause. This has led to Bipolar UK’s series of webinars on these little-researched subjects and to the charity working with researchers who are at last receiving funding to investigate how hormonal change and bipolar interact.

The charity today

It's wonderful that, despite the currently dire economic climate in the UK, Bipolar UK is in good health and expanding. Our community is always full of great ideas and we haven’t let being ignored by central government or the strictures of the pandemic dampen our creativity and enthusiasm.

This hasn’t always been the case, of course. It’s a familiar saying at Bipolar UK that the charity itself seems to suffer the highs and lows of the condition itself. One of my particular highs was being kissed by Stephen Fry at one of our fundraising receptions – not once but three times!

Chairing the Board was a privilege and speaking about the charity at various events: someone always came up after to talk about a relative they suspected of having bipolar or how to help a friend admit to themselves they had it – or sometimes to say they couldn’t believe I had bipolar (which always made me think how far we still need to go to overcome the stigma).

A previously precarious existence

During my ten years on the Board, we came perilously close to going under twice – and in our 40-year history that has happened too frequently. As the only charity for bipolar in the country, for a serious, life-threatening condition that affects well over a million people, plus many, many relatives – our existence should not be so precarious. I do believe that the importance of the work we do – and the money it saves society – is woefully undervalued by government. Let’s hope that the Bipolar Commission helps towards ending that neglect.

Peer support is at the heart of the charity

The charity was started by two women reaching out to others so they could form a community of support, and this remains at the heart of Bipolar UK. Struggling with a misunderstood and stigmatised lifelong condition isn’t easy so finding others who face similar challenges to talk to and share experiences with is invaluable and such an important aid on the journey towards living well with the condition.

Now some of us meet online or in zoom chatrooms rather than face to face in meeting rooms but, by whatever means, the charity continues to facilitate us being able to support each other and I hope that will carry on for another 40 years and beyond.

Clare is a journalist and researcher specialising in how bipolar affects women. Clare is the co-chair of the Bipolar Commission, a trustee for Maternal Mental Health Alliance and a trustee for Action on Postpartum Psychosis. She has a diagnosis of bipolar type 1.

Last updated: 9 February 2023