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Why is the Bipolar Youth Action Project Cool? Author, Melissa – BYAP Youth Lead

The VERY rough idea behind the Bipolar Youth Action Project (BYAP) is that it is a research study that addresses, well…

Bipolar disorder.​

But for youth.

Obviously.

So what makes this project cool? It’s that it’s actually asking youth with bipolar disorder how they manage their disorder themselves!

Why is this so important? Well, because it’s an opportunity for us, youth with bipolar disorder, to talk about what WE THINK works!

As I see it, mental health solutions are usually “top-down.”

Picture it like this: essentially, psychiatrists are at the “top,” looking “down.” It’s kind of like they’re up in a big tower, where they can observe many people at once. With their bird’s-eye view, they would be able to see, say, if a bunch of people below are walking in circles. On the other hand, at the “bottom,” an individual person may not be able to realize they’re walking in circles, because they don’t see things from the vantage point of a person above.

In the real world, not crazy circle-walking land, what this means is: psychiatrists observe patients, then determine what a group of patients has in common that makes them “bipolar.” Then, they write out all of these symptoms in a big book (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which released its 5th edition in 2013). Then other psychiatrists can look at the DSM-V and tell an individual patient that they have bipolar disorder by referring to the list of symptoms.

Now, this is all good! Psychiatrists are experts. It’s not like they just pulled this stuff out of nowhere – attempts to classify mental disorders date back to the mid-1800's, and the first DSM was released back in 1952, after a whole bunch of WWII veterans came home and the doctors were like, “Oh, wow, everyone has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We should probably deal with this." (Well, not exactly, since PTSD wasn’t a thing yet. But yeah.)

Since that’s happened, research into mental disorders has been pretty constant. A new edition of the DSM is released roughly every 20 years, with revisions released in between. They’re pretty much always been reviewed and more research is being always done.

Okay, so, sounds pretty good. So is there any issue with this?

Well… what about the “bottom-up?”

Psychiatrists and researchers do have the benefit of seeing things from the “top.” They can see that, over large groups of people, certain symptoms characterize bipolar disorder, and certain treatments – such as medications, cognitive behavioural therapy, or mindfulness – seem to work. But because they’re not at the bottom, they don’t have the unique, individual experience of a person with bipolar disorder – and so their solutions can’t reflect that.

We, the people on the ground, understand what it’s like to actually LIVE day-to-day with the challenges posed by bipolar disorder. Because of this, we can come to solutions that work for us, as individuals. And hey, maybe if the solution works for an individual, it can work for other people with the same challenge!

This is the bottom-up approach, and it’s exactly what the Bipolar Youth Action Project is about. The BYAP is about asking youth who face the daily challenges of bipolar disorder what works for US. It’s an opportunity for us to finally have a voice in the conversation about managing mental health.

After all, we’re the ones who live with it!

The First Bipolar Youth Action Project Forum by Anna Graham, Youth Peer Researcher

After careful planning and organization, the day for the first Bipolar Youth Action Project finally arrived. We set out to make our mark in the world of bipolar disorder (BD) research and we were ready to make it happen. Our goal was to find out what helped youth with BD to live meaningful and healthy lives: what skills they employed, and what tools they used to keep themselves balanced and well while living with the disorder. After a day filled with fun, new insights, and a plethora of information, we have gathered invaluable data that will help shed light on our cause.

The day was ready to begin with all the food, tables, and chairs set up in our space. Our 21 forum participants, all youth who live with BD, came through the doors, registering and acquainting themselves with each other and with the members of the BYAP. As everyone got settled introductions were made and the tone was set for the day — we were in for a lot of fun and information gathering. Throughout the day we had Erin Stewart Elliott, our graphic facilitator, creating images to represent what we were accomplishing that day. Erin’s graphic record outlined our journey as it developed, creating a unique visual reminder of what we had done. She began her process at the beginning of the forum and we watched as her drawings and words captured the feel and energy of the information that was being presented that day.

The participants then formed into groups in order to prepare for the focus group portion of the forum. The participants were organized into 4 groups with a facilitator asking questions and managing the flow of the conversation and a co-facilitator supporting and taking notes. This was the crucial portion of the forum, the time to gather data that we will organize and then present during our next forum. In the focus groups, we discussed methods for wellness and achieving balance and stability. It was an honest and unique view of how youth stay well while living with BD. After the focus groups were finished we broke for lunch and enjoyed delicious sandwiches and salads!

Then to finish off the day we had our workshops. The workshops were run by the BYAP members and covered topics such as mindfulness and how to live successfully and happily while not letting your disorder define who you are. The workshops were great, with lots of participation and interest. Laura walked us through a mindfulness segment in which we used a piece of chocolate to find ourselves in a state of calm and mindfulness; it was very effective and well received by the participants! Michelle and Alan also did a mindfulness exercise that taught us how to live within the present moment.

Overall the day was fantastic, and was successful in achieving its goal of finding new information to help in understanding how youth live well with bipolar disorder. Now we prepare for Forum 2, where we’ll share the information we collected in Forum 1! It will be an amazing way for people to see what self-management strategies are employed by youth and how they manage living with BD and staying well. I feel so grateful for being able to participate in such a meaningful project and can't wait for the next installment to get underway! 

Bipolar Youth Action Project: Starting Our Journey – Co-lead, Anna Graham

After meeting for dinner at our first group outing, it was time to take the plunge into a full day of training. We enjoyed learning the ins and outs of working as a team led by Eugenia from Mind Your Mind along with Klara and myself, the Lead Youth Researchers on the project. This was a fun and positive experience as we're working with an excellent group of people who are all eager to begin contributing to this project.

The Big Day

The day was segmented into presentations for the whole group, and lots of fantastic small group work. A great way to get everyone engaged and get to know each other better. One exercise that really helped create vision for the project was using a poster of a boat with water and logs, and filling it with our hopes, fears and ideas for the future of the project. It was an activity that allowed open communication and honest feedback as a way to clearly show the intentions everyone had and to paint a picture of what things will look like in the coming months. In the boat we saw what we'd be bringing to the project, our individual skills and ideas that would create the fuel to push us forward. Many people shared that they were looking forward to bringing forth their own personal experiences, and that sharing their stories would be a valuable way for them to contribute.

We also spent time looking at past projects, for example, musical presentations and informational sessions as a way to share insight into living with bipolar disorder. These past projects were shown to us to help us visualize the path our project might take, and it was exciting to see all of the possibilities that were offered to us.

Closing Thoughts

Our journey so far has been an exciting leap into opening a dialogue with like-minded people about the trials and tribulations of living with bipolar disorder. We have an excellent group that is focused and motivated to create change and tackle stigma and it is going to be amazing to be a part of as we grow, learn and pursue our vision.

Thank you to the Vancouver Foundation for their generous support.

By: Anna