A ray of hope
Before Sam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he felt like he was "living in hell". Sam, who was born and bred on the Northern Beaches, is reluctant to share his real name as "I don't like how there is still a stigma behind people with bipolar," the 35-year-old tells Peninsula Living.
"I have no idea why there is one - apparently Albert Einstein had it, so shouldn't it be a good thing?" he questions.
Sam says before he was diagnosed, life was "extremely strange".
"That's the only way to describe it. I knew something was wrong - I had these extreme highs and lows, sometimes for days at a time, where I would just be crying with happiness - I was in a manic state. I would spend so much money on things I didn't need and I would not be able to concentrate at work as I was bouncing around."
Tragically, he says he would then "plummet into terrible lows and I could not get out of bed.
Both the highs and the lows were triggered without any reason. It was just because that's the way my brain was working".
In Australia today, one in 50 people will develop bipolar disorder at some time in their lives. It affects men as much as women, with most being diagnosed in their 20s. It involves extreme moods of mania and depression.
The Black Dog Institute, located in Randwick, is a research centre that aims to reduce the incidence of mental illness and the stigma behind it. A Black Dog spokesperson confirms the management of bipolar disorder requires long-term handling and there are serious risks in delaying diagnosis and its treatment in young people.
More than 400 people, including many Northern Beaches locals, are now taking part in a three-month, non-clinical trial of a new app that aims to alert people with bipolar to the onset of mania and notify select family and/or friends.
The app has been developed by researchers associated with Sane Australia - a national charity assisting Australians with mental illness - and the Black Dog Institute.
Sane Australia CEO Jack Heath says the app is the first of its kind in Australia and will record and report information gained from a person's everyday technology use.
The app works by monitoring the way a person living with bipolar interacts with their digital devices, including a mobile phone, and identifies changes in their regular behaviour.
Changes could include the constant use of their mobile phone in a manic way for calls to family members and friends, which are more frequent or are at out-of-the-ordinary times.
Mr Heath says the app is "an exciting step forward in harnessing technology to manage mental illness".
"We know people living with bipolar are 15 times more likely to die by suicide and we hope this will help contribute to a reduction in avoidable deaths," he tells Peninsula Living.
Black Dog Institute researcher Jennifer Nicholas says the ability to detect early warning signs of episodes is a "critical wellness and relapse prevention strategy".
"Emerging smartphone technology that can detect these early signs has great potential to support individuals," she says.
"It's exciting Sane, in consultation with the NSW School of Psychiatry and the Black Dog Institute, is taking a step forward in devoting a rigorously tested app for individuals with bipolar."
Sam says his diagnosis five years ago at the Black Dog Institute "saved his life".
"I am now on medication and consequently go through life with no extreme highs or lows - I'm able to concentrate more and really focus on the tasks at hand," he says. "Some people become sad when they get the diagnosis but my parents and I were relieved because we knew there was something not adding up in my brain - and now we could fix it."
He is enthusiastic about the new app by Sane. "It will be a great support service for people with bipolar to really get to understand themselves and for their family also to pick up on potential manic states. It's necessary for everyone to know the warning signs."