Mental Health Month: A look at schizophrenia and bipolar disorder



Published May 18, 2023


This year, the focus is on understanding bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, two mental illnesses that are sometimes difficult to diagnose because of their shared traits.

According to Abdurahmaan Kenny, mental health portfolio manager at Pharma Dynamics, 3–4% of South Africans have bipolar disorder, and about 1% of the population will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime.

Understanding bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder experience intense mood swings, with extreme emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression), often with periods of stability in between. In some cases, bipolar patients also experience psychosis similar to schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions.

There are different types of bipolar disorder. Bipolar I is the most intense type and features episodes of mania and major depression that last for 1–2 weeks at a time. Bipolar II is similar, but sufferers do not experience mania, they present with hypomania, a milder version of mania. On the other end of the bipolar spectrum is cyclothymia, which is characterised by alternating periods of low-grade depression and hypomania.

Understanding the different types of bipolar disorder helps with early diagnosis and ensures sufferers receive the appropriate medical attention and support they need.

People with bipolar disorder experience intense mood swings, with extreme emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression), often with periods of stability in between. Picture: Sydney Sims/Unspalsh

“Symptoms of mania can involve irritability, difficulty sleeping, excessive energy or restlessness, high self-esteem, expansive mood, increased engagement in pleasurable activities, such as sexual activity or drug use, racing thoughts, and reckless behaviour,” said Kenny.

“Depressive symptoms are characterised by sadness or hopelessness that persists for two weeks or longer, but it can also cause a significant loss of interest and pleasure in daily activities.”

Other common symptoms include changes in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, anxiety, low self-esteem, psychosis (losing touch with reality), and suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

He highlights that although symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may overlap, professionals must look for distinct differences in behaviour, particularly relating to psychosis, when diagnosing schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.

Schizophrenia symptoms

People with schizophrenia may experience hallucinations, which affect their perceptions, such as hearing, seeing, smelling, or tasting things that are not there. Disorganised thinking and speech, and unusual behaviour, including childlike silliness, extreme agitation and strange postures, are classic symptoms of the illness.

Schizophrenia can impair a person’s ability to function normally, leading to depression, which is often associated with substance abuse.

Comprehensive knowledge of the unique features of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is crucial for accurate diagnosis in order to provide early intervention, appropriate medical treatment.

If left untreated, both disorders can have a serious impact on an affected person’s quality of life.

Strategies that can help people with bipolar disorder include:

• Avoiding alcohol and drugs.

• Eating healthily.

• Exercising regularly.

• Getting enough sleep.

• Managing stress.

• Seeking help and support from family, friends, and others.

When a person with schizophrenia can manage their symptoms through medication, they may benefit from psychological and social interventions, such as:

• Psychotherapy in both individual and family settings.

• Social or behavioural skills training to improve interactions with other people.

• Employment support to help them secure or perform a job with greater ease.

• Daily living support to help them find housing and manage daily responsibilities.

Other coping strategies include:

• Avoiding alcohol and drug use.

• Joining a support group.

• Learning about schizophrenia.

• Maintaining certain lifestyle habits, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, and following a sleep schedule.

• Managing stress through meditation, exercise, and yoga.

• Seeking help from family and friends.

Although bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can present significant challenges, with proper treatment, support, and self-care, individuals with these conditions can lead fulfilling lives.

As an advocate for mental health, Kenny calls on the public to participate in World Schizophrenia Day (May 24) and World Bipolar Day (May 30), to eradicate the stigma associated with these illnesses.

Everyone can contribute to breaking the stigma by educating themselves, using social media to share information, hosting awareness events, or initiating meaningful conversations with family and friends.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.