Health Q&A

Depression & Bipolar: How to Help Someone With A Mood Disorder

September 27, 2018

What is a mood disorder?

A mood disorder is a common mental health condition where one’s mental state is unstable and is characterised by the elevation or lowering of one’s mood for an extended period. This can cause debilitating emotional anguish and can severely inhibit the ability for daily functioning.

The most common types of mood disorders are depression and bipolar disorder. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group estimates that approximately 4.5 million South Africans suffer from depression and approximately 4 million suffer from bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, due to the negative stigma associated with mental illness, many people do not seek the help they need, which can lead to unhealthy coping strategies like self-harming behaviour or substance abuse.

What causes a mood disorder?

Mood disorders are thought to be a combination of psychological, biological and environmental factors, like a chemical or hormonal imbalance in your body that is triggered by a traumatic event such as a personal loss. The condition should be diagnosed by a doctor or mental health care practitioner and is treated with a combination of mood stabilising medication (for example, anti-depressants) and therapy.

What is depression?

Major depression, or clinical depression, is a ‘whole-body’ illness characterised by an emotional state where your mood is distorted by, or inconsistent with, your current circumstances. A depressive episode is not the same as feeling sad, which is a temporary emotional state.

The symptoms of depression vary depending on the individual, but may include the following:

  • Prolonged feelings of sadness, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of anger or irritability
  • Lethargy and decreased energy levels
  • Sleep disturbances like insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Appetite problems causing significant weight gain or loss
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Physical ailments like headaches or digestive problems
  • Suicidal or self-harm thoughts

There are other types of depression, in addition to major depression, which include:

  • Persistent Depressive Disorder

Formerly known as dysthymic disorder, persistent depressive disorder is a less severe form of major depression, which can last for more than two years.

  • Postpartum Depression

One in 10 women experience postpartum depression, also known as ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression. This is a complex mix of physical and emotional changes and stress factors experienced by a woman directly after giving birth.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depression, is a chronic mental health condition that is characterised by extreme mood swings that alternate between major depression and irrational mania. The seriousness of the disorder depends on the severity of depression and frequency of the manic episodes. There can also be periods of stability experienced between the depressive and manic cycles.

In addition to the symptoms associated with depression, those suffering from bipolar disorder also experience manic symptoms, which may include:

  • Impulsive or hedonistic behaviour
  • Delusions of self-importance and grandiosity
  • Talkative and highly energetic
  • Insomnia
  • Aggression, irritability or agitation
  • Hypersexuality
  • Inability to concentrate and easily distracted
  • Exaggerated self-confidence
  • Obsessive goal-driven behaviour
Helping someone with a mood disorder

It’s important to remember that there is no quick-fix for a mood disorder and it’s not something that a person can simply snap out of at will. Compounded by the negative stigma and subsequent embarrassment, as well as the diminished capacity to communicate, it may seem a difficult task to provide support. However, there are a number of things you can do to support someone with a mental illness.

Some of these include:

1.Educate yourself about the condition
You can’t assist if you don’t have an understanding of the illness, so learn everything you can about the condition. This will provide you with valuable insight and the ability to assess their symptoms and make decisions for their well-being.

2. Join a support group
Support groups aren’t just for people suffering from mental health problems. Those affected by the condition are encouraged to find support either in a group setting or online. Communicating with people who are in a similar position to you can be extremely beneficial for your own state of mind and they can also help with tips and suggestions.

3.  Encourage them to seek help
Encourage your loved one to seek medical assistance or counselling. Explain your concerns and offer a solution in a non-judgemental manner. Remind them they are loved and that they don’t have to feel this way forever.

4. Minimise the stress
Try to identify and minimise the stress in their lives that may be exacerbating the problem. Offer to assist wherever they feel overwhelmed. This will help them feel less vulnerable and more secure.

5. Offer to listen
This may appear too simple a task but giving someone your undivided attention is a powerful gift. Allowing the person to verbalise their feelings will go a long way in assisting with their recovery, so learn to listen.

6.  Make emergency plans
People suffering from mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, can often behave in an unpredictable manner where they could put themselves in a high-risk situation. Be proactive and plan ahead with emergency contingency plans for a variety of scenarios so you’re not caught off-guard.

7. Follow a healthy diet
There is a clear relationship between the quality of food you eat and mental health, so it’s best to plan a healthy diet that will encourage good mental well-being. Those suffering from a mood disorder should take extra care with their nutrition so they can nourish their brain and stabilise their moods. For more information, take a look at our article on Mood Food: Diet & Depression.

Topmed is committed to mental health awareness in the interests of personal wellness and quality of life. If you or a loved one are suffering from a mood disorder like depression or bipolar, we encourage you to seek the professional help you need. Get in touch today to sign up for cover for yourself and your family.

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