One man's experience with bipolar disorder sparks a supportive network

Danette Dooley
Published on January 14, 2012
After living with bipolar disorder for two decades, Robert Bishop decided to do something to help others facing the same challenges. He formed the Better Days Support Society. - Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

After battling bipolar disorder for two decades, 39-year-old Robert Bishop of Mount Pearl is sharing what he's learned with others.

He provides support to people with mental illness and their families through his non-profit organization, Better Days Support Society.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy and activity levels. It can make everyday tasks seem insurmountable.

Bishop says his symptoms started at age 19 when he lost his appetite and had trouble sleeping, but was full of energy after only a few hours' rest.

At 29, he had a breakdown and was hospitalized. That's when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I've been delusional and I've had psychosis at times," he said candidly.

"I've never been violent, but if I believe something, I keep it to myself and ball it all up."

He's been learning all he can about bipolar disorder and feels his episodes of mental illness are triggered by life issues.

"And once I faced whatever issue it was that was causing me to become bipolar, my episodes would go away," he said.

His father's death, for example, was traumatic for him.

"Then I was raised by my stepdad and I lost my stepdad," he said.

"And other issues started out as small but turned into a mountain when I would over-think them and the bipolar would take over."

It's been over a year since Bishop has had an episode. The last one was a turning point for him, he said.

"I sat down and I watched my wife call a number of places to get me help. And I said, 'If I get better one of these days, I'm going to get people some support and education.' And we've been working on it ever since."

In addition to peer and family support and education, the society promotes public awareness of mental health issues.

The group meets every second Monday in the community room at Dominion on Blackmarsh Road in St. John's. The next meeting is Monday evening.

"We have just as many family supporters as we do consumers," Bishop said.

His wife, Tracey Bishop, is a director with the society and facilitates some of the meetings. She's battled anxiety and depression most of her adult life and has family members with mental illness.

Tracey's sister, Suzanne Fogwill, is a mental health counsellor and also a director of the society, as is Bishop's mother, Clarice Bishop.

He says she has always supported him.

The society is hosting a full-day seminar at Hotel Mount Pearl on Jan. 21. "Understanding How Mental Illness is a Result of Being Stuck - and an Understanding of Getting Unstuck" will include presentations by guest speakers including Gerry Dooley with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) NL, psychiatrist Dr. Anne Porter and psychologist Dr. Curt Hillier.

"Dr. Porter is our professional adviser," Bishop said.

"Any decisions we make as a board go through her."

He said Dooley has become his mentor as well as a great supporter of the society.

A retired psychiatric nurse, Dooley has been an ASIST NL trainer for over 25 years and the group provided funding for Bishop to create a website for his society.

"If Robert helps people in terms of anxiety, depression and bi-polar disorder ... there will be less people getting into self-harm and suicide issues," Dooley said.

Bishop has not only used his knowledge about his mental illness to form the society, Dooley said, but has surrounded himself by supportive family members in doing so.

"To have your wife and your mom and other people who love you and care about you onside and as a part of your society, that's awesome. What a statement that makes," Dooley said.

Bishop continues to take medication, sees his doctor regularly and focuses on the positives in life.

He and Tracey have a 16-year-old daughter, Emily. Having grown up in a family where both parents battle mental illness has made her more accepting of others and eager to help, Bishop said.

"When she graduates (high school) next year, she wants to go to university and become a social worker. ... Tracey and I look at it as our being sick was not in vain. Maybe it all happened for a purpose and has given her direction in her life."

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