A blog for World Bipolar Day: my journey from undergraduate degree to PhD

 

On World Bipolar Day, Krista Easton, a PhD student at the University of Worcester with our Mood Disorders Research Group discusses her research into bipolar disorder and her journey from undergraduate to PhD student at the University of Worcester.

 

A computer copy of a Vincent Van Gogh self portrait
Van Gogh was posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In such uncertain times, it is even more important than ever to put the spotlight on our mental health. Today is World Bipolar Day, which is held on 30 March each year. This is the birthday of the artist, Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890), who was posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In collaboration with the Mood Disorders Research Group I had organised a number of university and community events to take place today to raise awareness and educate about bipolar disorder. However, sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we have had to cancel all face-to-face events. Instead, I am writing this blog from my computer at home to mark World Bipolar Day.

Individuals living with bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions, will face particular challenges in the coming months, including difficulties accessing support and services, loneliness, anxiety, concerns about physical and mental health and being unable to implement usual routines and self-management techniques. This will be a very difficult time for many individuals with bipolar disorder and their families, and my thoughts are with them.

The bipolar uk charity logo

The charity Bipolar UK is doing its very best to support individuals with bipolar disorder throughout this pandemic, including via on-line peer support and blogs written by individuals with bipolar disorder who are self-isolating.

 You can visit the Bipolr UK website for further information.

 

 

 

 

 

What is bipolar disorder?

The logo for World Bipolar day 2020

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong serious mood disorder characterised by episodes of mania (extremely high mood) and depression with an estimated lifetime prevalence of approximately 2% in the UK. These mood changes may also be accompanied by alterations in thinking and perception, including psychotic features (delusions and hallucinations) in some cases. Bipolar disorder can cause a great deal of suffering and, although treatments such as medication and psychotherapy are helpful, there are still many people who do not respond adequately or who suffer troublesome adverse side effects.

The exact causes of bipolar disorder are poorly understood. The Mood Disorders Research Group, is conducting research to examine the factors which contribute to mood disorders. These include biological factors, such as a genetic predisposition, as well as psychological factors, such as characteristic ways of thinking, and environmental factors, for example stressful life events. This research, aimed at improving our understanding of mood disorders, will facilitate future advances in the prevention and treatment of these debilitating illnesses.

About me

Five years ago, I commenced my undergraduate psychology studies at the University of Worcester. It was only supposed to last for three years, however, it is still going strong. My final year undergraduate research project with the Mood Disorders Research Group ignited my interest in mood disorders. I investigated the associations between an autistic spectrum conditions and suicidal behaviour in adults diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I enjoyed working with my supervisors Dr Bere Mahoney, Professor Lisa Jones and Dr Katherine Gordon-Smith so much that after successfully finishing my clinical psychology degree in 2018, I decided to apply for a PhD to work with them further to expand on these findings. I was accepted onto the PhD programme, which I commenced in October 2018.

Can you start a PhD straight after an undergraduate degree?

Many students use a Masters degree as a stepping stone towards a PhD and naturally there are many benefits to taking this route. There is however an option to go straight to a PhD from an undergraduate degree which involves the completion of additional research methods modules over the course of the programme.

So, what is my PhD research about?

My PhD research is focused on autism spectrum conditions in adults who have bipolar disorder.

An outline of a head with puzzle pieces to be slotted into it

Autism is a ‘spectrum’ condition, which means that everybody with autism is different. Symptoms vary between people, ranging from mild to severe. People with autism spectrum conditions may find social interactions and communication challenging and get anxious about unfamiliar situations. They may also find it hard to understand how other people think or feel. Processing information might take longer, and they do or think the same things over and over. Autism spectrum conditions occur across the lifespan, however the exact causes are presently unknown.

Adults with bipolar disorder are more likely to show symptoms of other mental health conditions, most commonly anxiety disorder, alcohol and substance use disorders, than those in the general population. In comparison with other conditions, research into the co-occurrence of autism spectrum conditions in adults with bipolar disorder has been less extensive. There is some published research that suggests autism spectrum conditions are more likely to occur in people who have bipolar disorder than in the general population, but there are few studies in adults and none in the UK. Therefore, little is known about risk and protective factors, and the clinical presentation of bipolar disorder in the context of autism spectrum conditions.

I am working with the Bipolar Disorder Research Network to conduct mixed methods research with two main phases:

  1.  I am examining how common it is for individuals with bipolar disorder in the UK to also have an autism spectrum condition diagnosis, and if there are particular features of bipolar disorder that are particularly associated with having both conditions.
  2. I am conducting interviews with individuals who have received a diagnosis of both an autism spectrum condition and bipolar disorder to explore their experiences from a life course perspective.

Understanding the overlap between bipolar disorder and autism spectrum conditions may have implications for clinical assessment and/or treatment of individuals living with both conditions, in addition to contributing to understanding the complex causes of both conditions.

Looking back the past 18 months, I feel I have definitely made the right decision starting my PhD straight after my undergraduate degree. First of all, it is a natural extension of my undergraduate research project. If I compare it to an everyday occurance: why would you stop watching your favourite Netflix program after the first series ended if the second one was already waiting for you? Well, you wouldn't, would you? Secondly and, perhaps even more importantly, I have found some wonderful supervisors that I love and respect. It is their knowledge, encouragement and ongoing support that makes my PhD possible in every sense. 

Acknowledgements 

I would like to thank my research supervisors: Professor Lisa Jones, Dr Bere Mahoney, and Dr Katherine Gordon-Smith, as well as the participants and members of the Bipolar Disorder Research Network.

Krista is a current PhD student at the University of Worcester. For details about the University’s research degree programmes please visit our research pages. Her undergraduate degree was a Clinical Psychology BSc.

All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.