16 May 2024

Researchers highlight the importance of hypersexuality as a symptom of bipolar disorder in ‘The Lancet Psychiatry’

New research highlighted today in ‘The Lancet Psychiatry’ conducted by leading mental health charity, Bipolar UK, shows that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK could be experiencing periods of hypersexual behaviour and taking risks with potentially life-changing consequences.

With over an estimated one million people living with bipolar in the UK, a Bipolar Commission survey of more than 1500 people found that 88% of survey respondents had experienced the symptom of hypersexual behaviour – suggesting this could be affecting many thousands of people across the UK. 

Defined as an unusual or excessive concern with or participation in sexual activity, people living with bipolar may experience hypersexual behaviour as part of a hypomanic or manic episode when they are more likely to take risks without thinking of the consequences. 

“This is a hugely under-researched symptom which is why the Bipolar Commission wanted to understand more about its prevalence and impact on individuals and their families,” said Dr Clare Dolman, lead researcher and co-chair of the Bipolar Commission who has bipolar disorder herself.

Dr Dolman added: “Not only do the vast majority of those living with bipolar experience hypersexual behaviour, but over half [54%] have experienced more than eight periods of hypersexual behaviour, with two thirds saying that each period of this behaviour had lasted for a month or more.

“Most respondents said that they were more sexually active during these periods of hypersexuality, with 69% saying they had tried to seduce someone; and 54% saying they had put themselves in potentially dangerous situations as a result.

“The consequences of this can be devastating. Over half [54%] lost a relationship; with a quarter saying that they had contracted an STI, and 19% saying it had resulted in an unplanned pregnancy.”

“Disturbingly, 22% of respondents said they had been raped during a period of hypersexuality (28% of women, 9% of men), and more than a third said they had been sexually assaulted (42% of women, 15% of men).” 

The research conducted by Bipolar UK is the first of its kind and highlights not only the huge number of people living with bipolar who have experienced this symptom, but also the impact it has, with many [40%] left feeling ashamed and 61% experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

One in five respondents reported they had attempted suicide because of a period of hypersexual behaviour or its consequences.

Anne Chataigné, who co-wrote a short documentary 'Trust Me' about living with bipolar and the symptom of hypersexual behaviour, said, “For me, symptoms of hypersexual behaviour are linked to risk-taking when I’m manic, and I’m not even aware of it at the time.

Hypersexuality is a symptom of bipolar. While I recognise and understand the shame and guilt associated with it when I am stable, it is not something I should need to carry the burden of long term.

“Shame linked to hypersexuality is devastating. Talking about it openly, free from that shame is really important.

“We need to get over the invisibility of the symptom and use psychoeducation to find ways to cope in the aftermath of an episode. The documentary I’ve made and the research from Bipolar UK offer platforms for people living with bipolar to talk about these issues.”

Séamus O’Hanlon, who lives with bipolar and hosted the podcast, ‘Hypersexuality Stories’, said: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding around the symptom of hypersexuality. People might assume that, being a man, I wouldn’t necessarily feel the same levels of shame and stigma.

“However, I think many men can really struggle coming to terms with some of the risks they took when they were unwell, which are often completely out of character.

“I’ve never been ashamed about being gay. But I’ve felt deep shame about the struggles I’ve faced around hypersexuality.

“There’s also a barrier for many men around being honest and open with healthcare professionals about this symptom, especially if they’re female.”

Dr Dolman added: “These findings are an important step forward in understanding the challenges faced by people living with bipolar.

“This is crucial because once someone recognises that it’s a symptom, they can take steps to protect themselves should they become unwell again, and they can also begin to let go of any unresolved shame or blame. 

“It’s also important because healthcare professionals need to recognise, talk about and offer treatment for this common symptom. 

“Research suggests that more than half of people with bipolar don’t have a diagnosis. So, if you - or someone you know - can recognise this behaviour, it’s worth asking. “Could it be bipolar?”

CEO of Bipolar UK, Simon Kitchen, added: “Bipolar is a complex mental health condition characterised by extended periods of extreme highs, and depressive lows. It currently takes on average 9.5 years to get a diagnosis after first telling a healthcare professional about symptoms.

“There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to treating bipolar, but medication, support and self-management strategies are key protective factors. 

“The message we want to get out to anyone who’s struggling with any of the symptoms – including hypersexual behaviour - is that, with the right treatment and support, it is possible to live a full and meaningful life with the condition. 

Bipolar UK can help with resources and UK-wide support, including our 20-minute eLearning course and Mood Tracker app, and peer support groups and eCommunity.”

Further information

Watch two webinars about ‘bipolar and hypersexual behaviour’ here

Watch the film ‘Trust me’ here

Listen to the podcast here  

Bipolar UK’s research department is establishing a new research community to help researchers understand bipolar better. Get involved and help us make a difference.

Last updated: 16 May 2024