Mental Illness


Bipolar Disorder

Winston Churchill referred to his depression as ‘The Black Dog’ which is often used as a metaphor for the illness.


Photo: Pixabay Public Domain

Today, Virginia’s illness is known as Bipolar disorder. A few years ago it would have been called manic depression.  Either way, it is an illness characterised by extremes of mood and feeling; a serious condition with extreme highs and extreme lows. We all feel better at some times than others but sufferers of Bipolar will have an impaired ability to function in normal life.

Periods of mania may result in a sufferer talking non-stop for days on end, experiencing racing thoughts and inappropriate elation. She may have increased energy, be hyperactive and be unable to sleep. Virginia heard voices, she didn’t interact with people, she became incoherent and jumbled her words.

Periods of depression may result in suicidal thoughts,  impaired ability to remember or concentrate  or  to make decisions. A sufferer may be extremely tired, sleeping far more than usual, disinterested in ordinary life, sad and anxious. Virginia suffered headaches and refused to eat at times.

Virginia’s doctor, George Savage, thought that her mood swings were caused by infections in the roots of Virginia’s teeth. This was consistent with the medical theory of the 1920s. As a result, Virginia had three teeth removed. Needless to say, it didn’t help and Virginia became angry and  distrustful of medical opinion to such an extent that she refused help during her last illness which ended in her suicide.

Other treatments that Virginia was prescribed included a rest cure. Virginia was told that she should not read or write. Poor Virginia needed to do both these things to make sense of her mental chaos. It was perhaps the worst ‘cure’ possible.

It is common for this illness to appear in teenage years and this was certainly the case with Virginia who had her first episode aged 13 when her mother died. Life events may have triggered her breakdowns; her mothers death, her fathers death, her brother’s death, her marriage even, as she suffered a breakdown shortly after her honeymoon.

Causes of Bipolar are not really fully understood but nowadays treatments are available. Medication became available from around 1950. Sadly all these advancements in medicine were too late for Virginia.

It has been said that some mental disorders can involve above average creativity and it is interesting that other famous sufferers of Bipolar include Beethoven and Tolstoy, Keats and Vincent Van Gogh. Sir Isaac Newton also suffered, as did Sylvia Plath and Sir Winston Churchill.





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