Bipolar affective disorder, popularly known as manic depression, affects between one and two per cent of the population. This means that, statistically speaking, one to two per cent of Christians will suffer from this condition at some point in their lives.
It affects the moods, the sufferer alternating between deep depression and the ‘highs’ of euphoria. Untreated, it can be very damaging – depression can lead to suicide while the ‘highs’ (mania) lead to impaired judgement with all its consequences. Serious psychosis may also occur.
However, it is treatable and, with appropriate medication and support from professionals, family and friends, sufferers can lead a near normal life.
Sufferers experience problems beyond the immediate symptoms of the illness. There can be social consequences such as severe isolation and loneliness. This can happen when the condition starts early in life, disrupting situations where friendships normally develop – as at school and college.
The isolation is compounded if, as often happens, the sufferer ends up unemployed. This can lower self-esteem and make the condition worse.
Sufferers’ families also experience difficulties. Marriages can be put under strain, as can relationships between parents and children, particularly if family members do not understand the condition. Problems can also arise in the workplace, depression leading to inefficiency or mania leading to inappropriate behaviour.
Christian sufferers have special problems. For example, it can be hard for a Christian who has done something wrong under the influence of mania (such as striking another person or swearing) to come to terms with their own behaviour.
Pastors need to be alert to such issues, and churches need to be aware of the isolation and disrupted social development that can afflict Christians with this condition. For example, they should not assume that if a sufferer does not contact them, it means that the sufferer does not want contact. Self-confidence has often been deeply damaged.
The strange or withdrawn behaviour of the sufferer may also upset or frighten fellow Christians. In cases like this, a church should ask one or two members who are able to cope with the situation to become actively involved. Even at their worst, sufferers will often respond to quiet encouragement and firm, supportive counselling.
Bipolar disorder often carries a stigma – sufferers are considered ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ – but Christians should repudiate such attitudes. The sufferer might behave strangely but this is due to an illness.
Bipolar disorder is normally due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. It is a physical problem, basically no different from illnesses such as diabetes in which the body fails to produce chemicals necessary for health. Whereas such conditions produce physical effects, bipolar disorder affects the mind.
It would be a shame if support for Christians with bipolar disorder were left entirely to mental health professionals or the sufferer’s immediate family. Christian sufferers would benefit greatly from input from their brothers and sisters in Christ.