In 1988, Julia Hamer-Hunt was diagnosed with the first stage of bipolar disorder. ‘It’s a devastating condition,’ she says. ‘It causes havoc in relationships and your life. The consequences for me have been instability, low self-esteem, under-maximisation of my potential, loneliness, episodes of psychosis and depression. I was imprisoned like Rilke’s panther.’ In spite of these challenges, it was also a time of growth and learning – thanks in large part to guidance from the Department of Psychiatry at the Warneford Hospital.

Under the care of Professor Paul Harrison, Julia’s treatment led her to participate in a series of trials. One of the most significant was the OXTEXT 1/TrueColours trial. Julia explains: ‘It has been invaluable in assisting me to monitor overall mood and anxiety trends and to spot early indicators of, and triggers for, changing moods.’

The trial included a computer-generated task involving the interpretation of facial expressions. ‘This I found fascinating’ says Julia. 'It helped me understand that recognising facial signs of emotion was problematic.’ As a result, she explains, ‘If I became confused, I sought clarification, explaining to people that I was not being pedantic, but simply that I did not understand.’ Julia has participated in the TrueColours trial continuously since 2008 and this has helped her to manage her condition. ‘It is a lifestyle change for me,’ she says.

People need to understand. They back off because they’re afraid. They don’t know what to say or do.

Of her relationship with her psychiatrist, Professor Harrison, Julia notes: ‘The dynamics are really important. He’s non-judgmental and tells me how it is, and that works for me.’ It has also spurred Julia on to undertake her own research. She explains: ‘I’ve read extensively to build upon the degree in psychology that I had previously taken to better understand my own development. It is also one of the reasons I participated in so many trials. I wanted to get a sense of control in my life.’

Julia has decided to leave a legacy to the study of mental health at Oxford, to help further research and treatment. She also hopes that the public understanding of conditions such as bipolar disorder will grow. ‘People need to understand. They back off because they’re afraid. They don’t know what to say or do.’

Julia concludes: ‘My life is colourful, but it can be exhausting if it gets out of control. Going through and understanding these experiments and trials has helped me enormously to regain control and lead a life that is more productive, meaningful and enjoyable.’ Thanks to her engagement and generosity, others who experience bipolar disorder in the future will also benefit.

Julia sits on numerous advisory groups as a PPI (Public Patient Involvement) member. Most recently she has been appointed the Lay co-Chair of the Patients and Research Group for the new National Institute for Health Research Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre as well as to the Steering Group.

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