Resilency in our Learnings from the Bipolar Youth Action Project’s Forum 1

In the first event of its kind, 21 youth participants aged 16 to 25 from Vancouver Island came together on a summer day to focus on, and share strategies for, living well and with resilience. All the youth participants shared a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (BD), as do all 7 members of our Youth Action Group, which was instrumental in planning and facilitating the forum.

In reflecting on the forum, the term “resilience” came to mind because of its powerful meaning. In the field of psychology it refers to an individual’s capacity to adapt, to thrive and fulfill potential despite or perhaps even because of life stressors and catastrophes[i]. Implicit is the recognition that amidst the most severe challenges life may bring, individuals and their communities can, and do, adapt and regain health and wellbeing.

Experience of mental and emotional crisis and imbalance is varied and subjective, and as old as time itself, but positive coping or adaptation strategies can greatly improve the lives of people who live with mental illness, including BD. Pharmacological treatment of symptoms, alone, without development of strategies for adapting to and managing stress, is often insufficient. Modern psychiatry is often concerned with medical solutions to acute or severe situations and thus, can be slower to provide psycho-educational support. Efforts to alleviate mental illness with a proactive and preventative approach are gaining ground, however, and this is where the Bipolar Youth Action Project can make a real impact.

The researchers leading the Bipolar Youth Action Project have, from the outset, focused on learning about resilience, and on learning from those with lived experience. At the forum, members of our 7-member Youth Action Group spoke about their personal experiences of battling with and overcoming the challenges of living with BD. In groups, our 21 youth participants were asked what actions – or ‘self-management strategies’ – they take to stay healthy. As the youth drew on their experience, and built on each other’s responses, a collective wisdom emerged along themes such as the importance of key relationships, essential lifestyle practices, and commitment to treatment.

The sense of hope and courage among participants was palpable. As a Youth Action Group member and forum facilitator, I saw that attitudes of resilience grow when shared. Using the knowledge we generated, our team members are ready to show that the strategies can be learned as well.

We’ll be doing this at our second forum on Sunday, November 15th in Victoria, BC, so get in touch if you’d like to join us.

Thank you for reading!

Footnote [i]

By: Alan, BYAP Member and forum workshop facilitator


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! 

My Personal Story – Alan- Bipolar Youth Action Project Member

Sometimes there is a fire burning and smoldering inside of me. But often, I feel stuck: Destructive habits of thought and inaction can keep me from connecting fully with life's opportunities. Tracing the roots of this, I can see that my emotional brain was largely shaped, shaken and formed in my teens.

Despite having moved almost every year of high school I found my first love there, and although she lived in Scotland we both desired to share a journey of coming closer. We kept in touch daily although we lived thousands of kilometers apart. I was on the school computers all the time, emailing back and forth with her. It was very difficult to keep the relationship going. Finally, I moved to China with my mother and sister; I often felt homesick and isolated. By the end of the year my grade included only one other student, a very quiet friend from Taiwan. In my Grade 11 year we moved back to Canada, and socially I was really lost. The relationship with my girlfriend ended.

My Struggles and Challenges

My parent's struggles to find lasting work took center stage in my family and personal life. One winter night, I spent hours making an igloo outside my house, all alone, feeling as miserable and lonely as a distant star in the icy dark sky. By the end of that school year, although outwardly doing well in school and acting friendly enough to my classmates, I had become extremely introverted. As an escape, I visited an older friend a few hours away in Vancouver, but in time the relationship became confused. He was perverse and abusive.

My first major breakdown came in the summer after graduation. I was blue and aimless. Helping at an intensive summer arts camp really picked me up but shortly afterwards I started having strange ideas, about things like channeling spiritual powers from people who had passed on and connecting to a spiritual dimension. During the day I roamed around town and started thinking that a great event was coming, or that the animals and trees were communicating with me. I would get lost in dream-­like thinking. But when I stopped sleeping, the dreams became waking nightmares. Vivid, powerful and almost tangible, they were difficult to discern from real life. My parents didn't know what to do, and ultimately, I was taken by ambulance to the hospital psychiatric unit.

My Personal Recovery

After a short return home I was admitted to Victoria's Eric Martin Pavilion, where I spent two months mostly in psychiatric intensive care. Some of the big guys in there were pretty scary. The food was awful and I still had strange thoughts and imaginings. It felt like being in jail — an exile in strange surroundings with little to remind me of the real world. Drawing and listening to music were the only consoling activities I had, but thankfully my parents were able to take me out. We would walk along the ocean or visit with friends. But even those activities could be too stressful for me sometimes. After six weeks or so on medication I was able to move to a group home and, within the year, I was doing much better. I got a job, went to college, made friends and joined activities.

Since then I have experienced further upsets, periods of depression and hospitalizations. Re-building good health and social confidence is a continual challenge — but I keep trying. I am not content living in the shadows, but am determined to keep learning about how to relate to the world around me and its expectations, despite my condition. 

By:  Alan, Bipolar Youth Action Project Member

Laying the Groundwork – Klara Woldenga, Bipolar Youth Action Project Co-lead

In our research meeting we laid the ground work for what the research study is about. We discussed the goals of the research project and the possible conflicts we could encounter along the way. We got to know each other better through group exercises which involved writing down goals and obstacles on post-it notes which were then posted on a large painting of a boat to create a metaphor for the research as a journey on a water vessel.

A Safe and Open Space

We also discussed the principles of ethics and what we can and cannot say outside of the group. What I thought was the most important was to realize that we were in a safe space, a space open to discussion about bipolar disorder. It made me feel comfortable being amongst people that all had the same diagnosis as me. In our group there are lots of different personality types, which reminded me that people with the same diagnosis aren’t necessarily the same person. We also spent time mingling with each other during lunch, which was positive; it allowed me to interact with the members of the group in a casual setting.

The Pros and the Cons

Over all, the entire research meeting went well. The strong pros of it were that it laid the ground work of the project as well as set goals for all of us to keep in mind. We were also able to spend more time with each other and get to know everyone better. The cons were that the meeting was much too long; I was barely able to pay attention and sit still by the end of it. For me, I don’t do well with passive learning; although being able to be on my feet as a Lead and a facilitator kept me focused enough to stay interested in the work.

Klara Woldenga

An Inspiring Journey Through the Bipolar Youth Action Project

I am excited as things progress with the Bipolar Youth Action Project (BYAP); you may wonder what is this project all about anyway? Well, CREST.BD, a research network situated out of the University of British Columbia and the Bipolar Disorder Society of BC (BDSBC) have teamed up to make innovative and unique magic! Erin Michalak is the co-lead researcher on the project and Sally McBride is the Knowledge Translation Manager.

We are hiring peer researchers to form two Youth Action Groups (YAGs) who are 19-25 years that have bipolar disorder to research self-management strategies on how to stay well living with bipolar disorder. They will use this data to not only help themselves, but spread the word into the larger bipolar youth community. We have two planned pods of researchers, six in Victoria, BC and the another six in the Comox/Campbell River, Courtenay areas. We also plan to create two research forums that will be designed by the youth themselves. For more information about the BYAP please visit the following link:

I am writing this blog to express how I have been feeling about the project and to share progress on the BYAP. Subsequent to creating two monster databases for the project of medical professionals, I was eager to begin and now recruitment is in full swing. My newly found relationship with CREST.BD has been an exemplary example of how to build a foundation for a solid working relationship. Nusha Elliot and I have been recruiting in the two designated areas and working closely together to ensure we have the young adults we need to make the project a success. We have been contacting a great number of relevant community organizations to share the project and in Victoria we already have three super star submissions for the YAGs! They are all current or past participants of the Teens2Twenties peer support group created by the BDSBC. We have an additional four young adults that have committed to submitting applications by mid-August and they are amazing individuals.

The most exciting part of the project has been connecting with the potential participants and sharing my excitement with them on a personal level. Many have expressed their desire to take on the project over a two-year term for their own reasons such as stomping out stigma, building their resume, helping other people stay well, express their creativity, and most of all be a part of something meaningful. The BYAP has captured my heart and I will do everything in my power to see it be successful by effectively working with CREST.BD and dedicating myself to the youth that have been chosen as the YAGs. It is my personal privilege to have them learn from us, but more importantly learn from them. As we move forward, I have nothing but great hope for all the hard work we have invested so far; the results will no doubt help many youth with bipolar disorder, which has always been my life’s vision and mission. This project is enriching my life and I am so grateful for all the people who are making this project happen. Thank you! heart

Please visit us on our Facebook page for updates on the Bipolar Youth Action Project.