In this episode, Michael McEwan speaks to Alison Cairns, Chief Executive of Bipolar Scotland, about what the supports and services the organisation provides.
MM - Michael McEwan
AK - Alison Kermes
MM Okay now on Iriss.fm, I'm going to be talking to Alison Kermes, now Alison is the Chief Executive and the Company Secretary for a Scottish Mental Health charity called Bipolar Scotland so thanks Alison for giving up your time. Now the first question I really want to ask is what is bipolar?
AK Bipolar is a serious mental illness, it affects 2 to 3% of the population and the symptoms include mood swings...extreme mood swings from, you know, serious depression to mania, psychosis. Most people live somewhere out with these extremes but that doesn't happen too often but it's characterised by just severe depression and then elated moods. Symptoms are things like insomnia, you know changes to sleeping patterns affect people hugely and can signal either depression or becoming high. Excessive energy, very...people are often very creative, very productive, do a lot of work when they're getting a wee bit high and then it can get out of control and what I will say is that it is...the mental illness with the highest instance of suicide. Anywhere between 25 and 50% of people with bipolar will attempt suicide at least once and people with bipolar are about 20 to 30 times more likely to die by suicide. It can take up to ten years or even more to get diagnosed because people go to the doctors when they're depressed, they don't go when they're feeling high, when they're getting things done. They don't think of going to the doctor and telling them about that so they go when they're feeling low, depressed, get treated for depression which isn't always the right treatment for a bipolar depression...so it's a vicious circle. So it's a serious mental illness but it can be controlled with the right treatments, the right medications, the right self-management. Learning to live with the condition, learning to control it so that's all very, very important.
MM So can I ask if...can people walk into your office and say "I need help, I've got bipolar." Or do they have to be referred from a doctor or social work?
AK We don't provide one to one service with people, we don't work with people individually. We're a very small organisation, we're the only organisation in Scotland for people with bipolar but we have...there's myself and 2 part time members of staff plus a fundraiser and that's it covering the whole of Scotland so what we do are support self-help groups that are around the country and we provide self-management training which is training people to live with the condition and manage it best. We've also got all sorts of information including a very, very new booklet that's like a guide to living with bipolar. In fact, The Essential Guide, so it's for people as soon as they're diagnosed and they walk out the doctors and go "Help, I haven't got a clue what that's all about." This is meant to answer their questions and tell them where to go for help. So we don't have the resources and it's just not what we're here for to work one to one with people but we do, I'm an unofficial helpline you know, if people phone the office we'll speak to them...
MM So it's...
AK ...on the phone and that happens all the time.
MM So it's about raising awareness as well?
AK It is very much about raising awareness and we'll go and do talks and training sessions with other organisations with work places and things like that as well because that's good for raising awareness. Yeah we'll concentrate on bipolar but its more, wider mental health as well.
MM I suppose that leads me on to my next question, what support can you provide someone?
AK So what we can do as I say we can speak to them, if someone phones us we'll talk to them you know whatever. We'll set...what we'll really do well we'll listen to them and a lot of people that's what they're looking for, someone just to listen to them. It's not judging, that understands what they're talking about and what they're going through or what their friend, family member or whoever it is they're phoning about is going through or we'll sign post them on to relevant organisations, local to them because that's obviously more useful than phoning an office somewhere. It's finding out "Where can I go in my local area, that's going to help me." But we have our self-help groups, support groups which operate like on a peer support system, so we've got 14 groups all-round the country so people can go a long to them and anyone can go along. Everything that we do, we say is for people affected by bipolar, so that's whether they have a...whether they're a friend, family member, professional so they've got the groups and then giving people the tools through self-management training to manage their condition is a huge, huge support.
MM You touched on this answer in my last question but how many support groups have you got and what is the age range that you work with people?
AK We've got 14 groups around the country, the age range ... it's adult population. We don't work with young people, we say 18 plus but we've had 16/17 year olds going along. Working adult age range really because we can't specialise in older people so we're too small to have the resources to specialise but the groups are open to anybody that wants to go along although we do tell people they're not suitable for child...you know people can't take their children along or anything like that.
MM I'm just going to ask how many support groups have you...?
AK Aye, you've said that...we've got...yeah we've got 14 and they're based all sorts of different parts of Scotland I mean, we've actually got one in Orkney...
MM Uh huh.
AK ...and we've got one down in the Borders, down in Galashiels so they're in places where people have contacted us maybe and we've felt there's an interest for a group and we've been able to recruit volunteer facilitators cos we...it's changed over the past couple of years, the groups used to all be run sort of internally by members of the group but what we've found works better is if we have volunteers coming in to run them which maybe tends to be post grad psychology students or something like that. Some of the groups are run by members as well and what we've found in some of the newer ones is like one member of the group and one external facilitator works well in running it and we train. We've got a training program that we do, we just do it individually with people when they come forward and obviously they're PVG checked and we've got a group about to start in Inverness where we have had one in the past and it fell away so we're working on starting a new group there and the groups that have started over the past year since they're current development workers been in post have been really, really successful. So when you start a group you expect 5/6 people to come along and that's good to get started with and build on. We started one in Paisley and 22 people or 25 people came to the first meeting and it's been sustained, they've kept a really good number up all through. We started one in Dundee towards the end of the year and even their meeting, the week of Christmas had 18 people at it which is, you know, even the big Glasgow group had about half a dozen so the groups are really picking up and they offer people just great support, you know, they offer peer support. People can meet other people that have been through maybe what they're going through now. So they can support each other, they find out "Well it's not just me." There's light at the end of the tunnel and they can get information if we've speakers and things like that as well. So they're...the groups are great places for people to experience peer support, sharing, friendship, warmth, solidarity and safety they can disclose what they want to disclose.
MM What research goes into it, I know there's a lot of research...just give us a kind of overview of...?
AK In bipolar there is nowhere near enough research, it's always been very hit and miss when they did the sign guidelines for bipolar a number of years ago there were 2 or 3 pieces of research to back it up it was absolutely ridiculous. Actually in Glasgow there's a fair bit of research goes on because we have Professor Danny Smith at Glasgow Uni who's one of our advisors and he sort of runs various research projects with PhD students and suchlike. At the minute, they were in the papers yesterday cos they're doing some research into whether Rabbie Burns was bipolar, I know that might not help other people at the minute but you know there's things like that. But Danny's done a lot of...he also does a lot of work on the affectfulness of online training tools and things like that and he's developed a program through research for that and there's Professor Andrew McIntosh at Edinburgh Uni who we've also worked with a lot and he's...I think the other Scottish bipolar specialist and he's ran quite a few sort of research projects over the past few years and I know a lot of our members have become involved with...we'll tell peoplle what's going on you know and if they're looking for volunteers they'll maybe volunteer and I know a good few people volunteered with Andrew and it was like actually looking into their brain, you know analysing different aspects and it was families, how it affected families going down but it's still very hit and miss there's not a lot of research around, there's not a lot of money for a research. Mental health still the poor relation and bipolar's still seen as the even poorer relation to that yeah there's much more awareness now but there's still not a lot of research into how to most effectively deal with it., how people recover.
MM Would you say that bipolar is one of these kind of hidden disabilities?
AK Yeah very much so, specially cos people are not diagnosed for so long, quite often you know so they're living with it and they don't even know. You know they don't know that it's there, they'll maybe think they have depression or they've got low mood or a lot of people do first experience sort of symptoms at kind of student age, late teens/early twenties but because of their age it's not picked up as well because lots of normal teenage mood swing behaviour and what is actually you know mental illness.
MM Have you came across people being born as bipolar or has it always been kind of later in life?
AK There's not enough research or evidence to show how it manifests itself, I mean yeah there's a lot of thought that yeah there must be something genetic in it so there's something there. It's a chemical imbalance in the brain so there must be something there and it's how people react to triggers. Whether that will actually, you know, come to light and you know with some people it'll just lie dormant, with other people with different life events will you know trigger an episode that'll bring it to light and behaviour will change and the whole process will start.
MM So tell us about how people can join and support the organisation.
AK Yeah we are a membership organisation, we currently have about 450 members and the more members we have the more we can do. We had huge funding cuts over the past 2/3 years; it's been absolutely horrendous we feel like we're on the way back up again. We've had to really not move forward the way we would want to but now we feel things are changing in that front wo you know there's a lot of developments coming on, we're reviewing self-management, we're looking at how we can support people with it. So people can become members, we can send out information, can go on the website and join online. We do have a membership charge but if people aren't working its £5 a year and really the members voted to keep a membership fee because they feel it makes it something that they value.