World Bipolar Day 2019

SAFMH News Room

World Bipolar Day 2019 represents a golden opportunity to look back at the past, examine the present and determine what we want for the future of people with Bipolar Disorder. This year, the South African Federation for Mental Health has elected to commemorate this occasion by launching a media campaign surrounding the idea that Bipolar Disorder does not have to be a life-sentence. People with this illness can live happy and fulfilling lives provided they receive the support they need. SAFMH has composed a press release to this effect. It appears below:

The 30th of March 2019 is World Bipolar Day. According to the World Health Organisation (2018) Bipolar Disorder is a prevalent mental health condition affecting approximately 60 million people worldwide.

According to Harddon, Hayes, Blackburn et al (2013), Bipolar Disorder can be considered a Serious Mental Illness (SMI). This is not to say that this condition is a life sentence. People with Bipolar Disorder can lead happy and fulfilling lives if adequate support structures are put in place for them to do so. Unfortunately, all too often, this is not the case, and these individuals are left in a state of flux, brought on by unmanaged symptoms and a lack of support.

Sifiso Mkhasibe, a Programme Assistant at the South African Federation for Mental Health, refers to himself as a “survivor of Bipolar Disorder.” Mkhasibe struggled with the disorder for years- at times hospitalised and isolated- until he was provided with the right treatment regimen and proper assistance. Today he is confident and successful, having taken control of his life:

“Days, weeks, months went by, until I realised enough is enough. I had to take ownership of Bipolar Mood Disorder. I educated myself about the symptoms I had experienced when I was diagnosed…once I had learned how to manage my Bipolar Mood Disorder, life started to become clearer, I knew what I had to do and how to do it. I was no longer a victim of my Bipolar Mood Disorder. I stopped defining myself as a person with Bipolar Mood Disorder, now I just say I had those symptoms when I was diagnosed. I am on medical treatment and I do not present those symptoms any longer.”

There are different support structures that, if put in place and available to those needing it, can aid in the recovery of people with Bipolar Disorder. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) (no date) treatment can take the form of the provision of medication, psychotherapy, family support groups or periodic hospitalisation as a last resort. Authors like Mkize (2003) highlight that assistance from traditional healers is also one of the options available to people with mental illness. A further mechanism which can be used to support such individuals is reasonable accommodation in the workplace as contemplated in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997. There are thus many mechanisms that can be employed to enable people with Bipolar Disorder to have a good quality of life.

There are many reasons why duty-bearers fail individuals with Bipolar Disorder. One of them is the inadequate number of trained professionals to care for such individuals. According to the World Health Organisation’s Mental Health Atlas (2019), South Africa has only 1.52 psychiatrists per 100 000 people. The same document indicates that there are only 16.56 beds available in psychiatric hospitals per 100 000 people. There is no evidence surrounding support groups. In addition, only R99.47 is budgeted per person for mental health services on an annual basis. What is perhaps the most problematic of all is the fact that, in many instances, there is simply no data available on the state of mental health in South Africa, with the Atlas indicating in many places that there is no information or that no information has been reported on various items such as community-based organisations or length of stay in inpatient facilities. Another reason is the failure to employ adequate numbers of people with disabilities, – let alone take steps to accommodate them. According to the Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report (2017/2018), only 1.3% of the workforce were people with disabilities, in comparison with the employment equity target for employment of such individuals which is 2%.

The challenges faced by individuals with Bipolar Disorder are exacerbated by the fact that existing legislation and policy are poorly implemented. Instruments such as the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan 2013-2020 often remain paper-based commitments rather than becoming living documents, with the end of this policy’s trajectory looming and no publicised steps being taken to update it. The Mental Health Care Act of 2002 is also becoming outdated and requires review but again, seemingly nothing is being done to facilitate this process. This means that despite protective mechanisms having been created for people with Bipolar Disorder and other mental disabilities, there is very little actually shielding them from the challenges they face within society.

One of the reasons that people with Bipolar Disorder remain underserved is because of prevailing societal stigma. In general, little is known about the fact that Bipolar Disorder can be managed and a perception exists that people who have this illness are capricious, unreliable and incapable. SAFMH strongly dissents from these notions. People with Bipolar Disorder can be strong, resilient and successful in all aspects of life, including relationships, education and employment. More public education and awareness is urgently required if we are going to start dispelling the stigma surrounding Bipolar Disorder.

SAFMH is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) seeking to protect and uphold the rights of people with mental illness, psychosocial disability and intellectual disability. We submit that it is wholly possible for any individual to thrive in their surroundings if they are given the appropriate tools to do so. As such, we call upon the state to work towards improving service delivery for people with Bipolar Disorder by averting the issues outlined above. We also call upon this duty-bearer to ensure that law and policy are implemented and kept properly up to date. Similarly, we call upon organisations engaging in advocacy and awareness-raising activities to provide information to the public to diminish stigma and enable communities to better support their loved ones, employees and school-going individuals, and for the state to actively invest in these types of activities. Finally, we also call upon people with Bipolar Disorder to empower themselves and begin to self-advocate as Mr Mkhasibe has done.

Bipolar Disorder can be disruptive to a person’s life, but it need not be a dominating force. With proper treatment and care the quality of life of persons with Bipolar Disorder can substantially improve. It’s time to #takeyourplace in making this a reality.

Nicole Breen
Project Leader: Information and Awareness
South African Federation for Mental Health
Cell: 072 2577 938
Tel: 011 781 1852

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