The Australians Hunting The Genes Behind Bipolar Disorder

Just like the music he composes, Alex Pettigrew’s life has already hit big high notes and some very deep lows.

Alex was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was just 17, but he was experiencing symptoms from 14, and like so many others it was misdiagnosed.

“It was just a long journey to figure out what was going on,’’ he told 10 News First.

“They originally said it was like depression and anxiety… I would have extreme highs for a while, and then I would just drop into an extreme low of depression.”

Alex was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, even after diagnosis, Alex had to try 10 separate medications before he found the right one for him.

Sadly, his story is far from unusual.

But this could now all change, and with it the stigma that people who live with the disorder suffer.

Researchers are searching for 5000 Australians with bipolar to take part in a world-wide genetic study.

Researchers hope to find the genetics behind bipolar disorder.

They say within five years they will be able to identify the genes behind bipolar, and revolutionise the way it is diagnosed and treated.

“The aim of this study is to find those genes, to find much better targeted medicines; tailored to the individual rather than the one size fits all model that we have at the moment," Professor Nick Martin from the Sydney Brain and Mind Centre said.

But if this study is successful, he said, within a year they could have a cheap genetic test that will tell people if they have a genetic risk, and exactly how big that risk is.

Professor Nick Martin.

“We could tell them what their percent risk of this is,” Martin said.

“That could be very helpful in terms of people planning their lives in terms of perhaps avoiding high-stress jobs, or going to positive counselling, or cognitive behavioural therapy.”

One in 50 Australians is diagnosed with bipolar during their lifetime and it can affect anyone.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said his own mum lived with it, and back then the treatment was very difficult on families.

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“The last time I saw her she was in an institution in Goulburn with a very heavy dose of Lithium,” he said.

“This is a real and powerful thing for many Australian families but it is deeply personal for me.”

For Alex, he hopes he can next year be accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and is already writing his own music theatre production.

He was misdiagnosed with depression and anxiety as a teenager.

He wants other young Australians with bipolar to know they’re not alone and treatment is worth it.

“I’m doing this for the 15-year-old out there who is struggling with their mental health, and doesn’t quite know what is going on with them,” he said.

“If you are experiencing of mania and depression, you are not alone, when I was a teenager it happened to me and there is help out there.”

And hopefully, soon there will also be a genetic breakthrough on a condition so many people have just have to live with.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.