OUT OF YOUR MIND? Bipolar Disorder, Previously Called Manic Depression, Is Now Believed to Affect Up to Five per Cent of the UK Population. Tomorrow, the BBC Continues Its Major Documentary about the Illness, and Here Emma Crichton-Miller Talks to Sufferers about How Their Severe Mood Swings Can Blight Their Lives, and Looks at the Latest Treatments

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Byline: EMMA CRICHTON-MILLER

For Michael, the crisis came in 1996 on a ferry from Newcastle to Bergen in Norway. For six years his moods had alternated between immobilising depression (he even attempted suicide) and euphoric highs, during which he would spend and socialise recklessly. Antidepressants had helped him manage his mood swings, and in 1996 his doctor offered him a new one, Prozac. But on board ship, his behaviour grew so extreme that his travelling companion disowned him. 'I was getting into arguments, challenging everyone, being very demanding,' says Michael, now 34.

When they arrived in Bergen, the police were waiting to escort Michael to the nearest psychiatric hospital, and although he managed to convince the psychiatrists that he was fine, the mania had not yet run its course. He became convinced that he could win at least [pounds sterling]1 million in damages from the Norwegian government for trying to restrain him and, during a second visit there, blew [pounds sterling]15,000 on a spending spree in Oslo before eventually being sectioned on his return to Britain under the 1983 Mental Health Act.

It was at this point that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This immediately made sense of the terrifying mood swings he had experienced since late adolescence - deep depressions causing him to underperform at school, and surges of exhilaration that got him fired from his job and into debt.

This combination gradually alienated family and friends.

It took over a year of heavy medication to help Michael recover, and he took various combinations of the mood stabiliser lithium and antipsychotic drugs (though not Prozac, which may in fact have exacerbated his condition in 1996). As his moods gradually stabilised, Michael has been able to rebuild his home, work and social life. But ten years on, he is still paying off his debts from Norway and is haunted by the fear of losing control once again.

Bipolar disorder is what used to be called 'manic depression'. While serious depression is now accepted as something that any one of us may suffer at some stage, the manic form still carries a stigma of madness that we prefer to assume afflicts only a few individuals. Recently, however, improved diagnosis has dramatically expanded the number of people believed to be sufferers. It seems now that perhaps as many as one per cent of the population are 'bipolar I', which is the most severe form, with serious episodes of mania and sometimes deep depressive symptoms. Up to 40 per cent of these people may not have come forward for treatment.

Celebrity sufferers, such as Stephen Fry, have helped raise awareness of the condition.

The 49-year-old actor and writer talks openly of his struggle to cope with its symptoms in the current two-part BBC2 documentary The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive. 'I'd never heard the word "bipolar" before, but for the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explains the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life,' says Fry, who twice tried to commit suicide before receiving treatment in 1995. 'Four million others in the UK have it, and many of them will end up killing themselves.' A range of disorders has been identified as part of the bipolar spectrum, from psychosis at one end to the kinds of mood swing that pass for excitability or fragility at the other. Some organisations believe that one to two per cent of the British population is suffering from some form of the disorder, while others say the figure is up to five per cent. Yet although the World Health Organisation lists bipolar disorder as the sixth most serious cause of disability worldwide, it remains chronically under-diagnosed. In Britain, MDF the Bipolar Organisation (formerly called the Manic Depression Fellowship) has 160 self-help groups nationwide, and claims that on average it has taken ten years for its members to be diagnosed. …