“Have I argued with my family this week?”: Self-monitoring of moods in bipolar disorder
To mark the first annual Research Appreciation Day on the 5th July 2023, Dr Katherine Gordon-Smith, Senior Research Fellow within the Mood Disorders Research Group in the School of Allied Health and Community discusses her recent research into mood monitoring in bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a common, severe mental illness characterised by highs (episodes of mania) and lows (episodes of depression). It affects all aspects of daily life and can be unpredictable, varying greatly from person to person.
To better understand bipolar disorder, the Bipolar Disorder Research Network (BDRN) was founded by our research group. This collaboration includes researchers, clinicians and research participants from across the UK. We have recruited the largest sample of individuals with bipolar disorder in the world (over 7500 participants) helping us to uncover the root causes of this condition.
Tracking mood with True Colours
More than 1200 of our BDRN research participants have been part of our True Colours research initiative, where they answered weekly online questions about their mood. These responses are turned into graphs, giving participants a visual representation of their mood changes that they can access at any time and share with others. We couldn’t do this research without the generous help and support of our research participants who have on average been monitoring their mood for over two years. With some participants having tracked their moods for up to seven years, the True Colours data is providing valuable insight into how mood symptoms change over time in people with bipolar disorder.
Self-monitoring is key to helping individuals understand and manage their mood symptoms more effectively. As technology advances, new tools are constantly being developed to improve the way people with bipolar disorder track their moods and self-manage their condition.
Listening to users’ feedback
To improve digital mood-monitoring tools, it's essential to consider user feedback. In response to early feedback, BDRN participants using True Colours could choose to monitor self-selected aspects of their bipolar disorder that they find important. In a recent study, we explored the personalised questions that participants asked themselves to track their condition. Common themes included physical activity, exercise, anxiety, and sleep. This shows the significance of factors other than mood symptoms that are important to those living with bipolar disorder in understanding and monitoring their experience of the condition.
In another recent study we examined users’ perspectives on self-monitoring bipolar disorder using True Colours. Most participants found the tool valuable, highlighting benefits like having a visual record of mood changes and identifying triggers and early warning signs. Personalisation and ease of use were deemed particularly important. Many participants reported that sharing their graphs with healthcare professionals and family/friends was helpful, with the primary benefit being improved communication.
Our research has implications for the use of digital mood monitoring tools in both research and clinical settings, particularly for those who may be less digitally confident. Our findings show that digital tools are acceptable to a broad range of people who have bipolar disorder (our oldest participant is currently aged 85!) for long-term use, and emphasise the importance of sharing self-monitoring data with others to enhance communication about the lived experience of bipolar disorder.
Our research would not be possible without the support of our True Colours participants. We would also like to say a very special thank you to our co-author and research champion Julia Savage.
To keep up to date with our research, you can follow our research group on Twitter here
Dr Katherine Gordon-Smith and members of the Mood Disorders Research Group teach and supervise research projects about mental illness, including bipolar disorder, on many undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Worcester, including PhD, Psychology BSc (Hons), Medicine MBChB, Midwifery BSc (Hons), Nursing BSc (Hons), Physician Associate MSc, and Paramedic Science (BSc Hons).
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Find out more about the Mood Disorders Research Group