As chef Heston Blumenthal reveals diagnosis – what is bipolar and what are the warning signs?

As the celebrity chef shines a light on the condition, a bipolar expert explains what it means and how it’s treated.

Blumenthal has spoken out about his diagnosis
Heston Blumenthal Blumenthal has spoken out about his diagnosis (Alamy Stock Photo)

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has revealed he’s been diagnosed with bipolar.

The restauranteur was previously diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2017, and says his neurodivergence is his “superpower”.

“My most artistic, innovative and exciting work is because I am neurodivergent, which I describe as my superpower,” said the chef, 57, owner of the esteemed Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, among others.

Speaking out about the need for a change in attitudes towards neurodiversity in the workplace, he added: “The world needs to move on from outdated and archaic misinterpretations of perceived difference, and embrace the opportunities neurodiversity presents.”

So, what is bipolar and how does it affect people?

Firstly, it’s a surprisingly common mental health condition – the charity Bipolar UK estimates that over a million adults in the UK have it, around 30% more than the number of people with dementia. However, it’s also estimated at least half a million people with bipolar in the UK are undiagnosed.

“It’s really critical that people like Heston are able to be open about their condition,” says Simon Kitchen, CEO of Bipolar UK.

The condition is thought to have a genetic link – evidence suggests those with a parent with bipolar have around a 10% chance of developing the condition, and those with two bipolar parents have up to a 70% chance of having it.

Mood changes

A serious mental health condition, bipolar causes significant mood swings, ranging from highs (hypermania or mania) to lows (depression), as well as a mix of both, where symptoms of depression and mania occur at the same time between periods of stability.

“It’s characterised by extreme highs and lows of emotion, and energy as well,” says Kitchen. “Hypermania is where people tip over into a high energy state, where they can be very productive and very charismatic, and consequently, many people with bipolar can be very high achievers because of this.

“The problem with bipolar is if it’s not managed, it can tip over into full-blown manic episodes, where it’s like a train running down a mountain – it can’t stop itself,” he adds.

This can lead to sleeping problems and very erratic behaviour. Kitchen says: “They might send emails to a colleague at two o’clock in the morning, they might end up experiencing hypersexual behaviour, or put themselves in very vulnerable situations. And they can also spend lots of money in a short period of time, and take on lots of debt.

“The other side is that for the high, there’s always a low, and the lows for bipolar depression are very debilitating,” Kitchen continues. “People might spend weeks, even months in bed, and they can also experience really intrusive suicidal thoughts.”

He says up to one in five people with bipolar die by suicide, and that this risk is significantly higher if someone doesn’t get appropriate support to manage their condition.

Diagnosis is key

There is effective treatment for bipolar, however Kitchen says 60% of people living with the condition get no treatment or support, and it takes an average of nine-and-a-half years to get an accurate diagnosis. As a result, undiagnosed people can carry a lot of shame about their behaviour, he says, and their relationships can be badly affected.

“It really damages family relationships. Whereas if you know you’ve got a mental health condition and that’s what’s caused your behaviour, it doesn’t make the impact necessarily easier, but it means the person living with the condition doesn’t have the same level of shame. This is part of the condition that can be managed.”

How do you treat bipolar?

Mood stabiliser medication can be used to treat bipolar, often in conjunction with an antipsychotic to manage mania, or an antidepressant to “bring them up slightly”, explains Kitchen. The most common mood stabiliser is lithium, although Kitchen points out that some people respond better to different medications. Psychological therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling, can also be very helpful.

In addition, lifestyle changes are important, including making sure to get seven to eight hours sleep a night, and people with bipolar can benefit from planning their lives carefully.

Kitchen explains: “If you’ve got a new job, if you’re really excited about something – those feelings for bipolar people can trigger an episode. So we would always encourage people to plan their lives so they don’t have too much stuff going on at the same time, good or bad.

“So don’t start a new job, get married, and go on holiday all at the same time – space it out so you’ve got them going on at different times.”

While there’s no cure, Kitchen says: “With the right medication and support, you can live a really good life. It’s really difficult at times, but it’s possible to go for years at a time without severe episodes.”

Peer support can also be very helpful (Bipolar UK runs support groups across the country).

Living well with bipolar

“Most people, when they first find out they’ve got a diagnosis, they see it as ‘this is the end of my life, I’ve got a really severe mental health condition, I can’t  do well with it’. It’s a real moment of despair for them because they don’t think there’s any hope, when in reality, the diagnosis is the start of their life getting better,” says Kitchen.

“It’s not easy, but life can get better and they can get in control of this thing. And meeting other people who have been through that journey, and being able to support each other through it, is really powerful.

“Talking about mental health, and bipolar in particular, shouldn’t be taboo – that’s really critical. The more people are open about it, the more it’s easier to manage.”