Soweto resident, Themba Senosha was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005. It can be a devastating psychiatric condition, characterised by prolonged mood swings, ranging from debilitating depression to euphoric behaviour accompanied by severe changes in energy levels, clinically referred to as “mania”.

‘€œI was acting violently. Shouting at people, telling them that they couldn’€™t do anything to me. I was energetic. I felt powerful. I went for days without sleeping’€, Themba tells me.

Soon after such a manic episode, Themba’€™s mood would change and he would experience severe depression.

‘€œI was not able to take care of myself. At times I would not even take a bath and not do my laundry’€, he says.

Dr Mvuyiso Talatala, a psychiatrist in private practice, describes bipolar disorder as an ‘€œexaggeration of normality’€.

‘€œIn the brain, there are bio-chemicals that maintain equilibrium. It’€™s usually these bio-chemicals that are damaged to the extent that a person is more powerful than any other who does not have this condition’€, he explains.

‘€œWhen these individuals are manic, they are easily irritable and aggressive. During this episode they become so powerful that it’€™s not easy to contain them’€, he adds.

Over time, bipolar disorder, which caused Themba to be violent, placed a heavy strain on his loved ones.

‘€œMy family called in the police. They took me to Baragwanath Hospital. That’€™s where doctors diagnosed me with bipolar’€, says Themba.      

Although bipolar disorder is treatable, many people don’€™t recognize the warning signs, thus they don’€™t get the help they need.

What could have happened had Themba not been treated?

‘€œDuring the first episode you become manic or depressed. It then passes. You could live for years without any episode even if we are not treating you.

Then another episode follows, often with periods of ‘normal’ moods in between becoming shorter.   The episodes then occur repeatedly and the person becomes mentally ill throughout’€, replies Dr Talatala.    

‘€œThe manic episode, characterised by euphoric recklessness, could last up to three months. During this phase you are vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, because your sexual drive is too high. The depressive episode could last up to six months if you are not treated and you are still alive’€, he says, adding that ‘€œthe depressive phase of bipolar disorder is often very severe, and suicide is a major risk factor’€.  

‘€œAbout 15 percent of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide and a significant number of them are successful’€, warns Dr Talalata.

Psychotherapy is one way of treating bipolar disorder in conjunction with bipolar medication.

‘€œPsychotherapy is quite important for bipolar patients because you learn what the symptoms look like. It also helps you to cope with the condition beyond the medication’€, he concludes.