Bipolar disease unmasked by the Christchurch earthquake

When the ground starts to tremble and shake

The people and buildings might break

     And after the panic

     A soul could go manic

In the aftermath of a big quake.

 Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical and backing from the brink of burnout, while my one year non compete clause ticks away, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently, I’m working in Matakana, on the North Island of New Zealand.

This weekend Bethany and I took a road trip north from Matakana.  Our first stop, to Bennett’s chocolate factory in Mangawai, left us euphoric.  We visited David and Ursula, who live in the area.

An electrician, David has helped a great deal in Christchurch since the earthquake on February 22.

The familiar news photos show the destroyed central business district, and fail to depict the drama and irony of the day-to-day human situation.

The temblor cut communication to the eastern suburbs; telephone, electric, sewer, water, everything.  Flying his own helicopter at his own expense initially, a local man delivered load after load of hot food to parks until the Red Cross took over (some would say they didn’t do as good a job).

Disposal of waste became an immediate problem.   Portaloos got shipped in by the thousand, but the limited supply meant some people faced a walk of a kilometer.  Fights broke out over access to basic facilities. 

Two plumbers in their early 20’s sat down in a garage, and in the course of an evening figured out how to turn five gallon (twenty liter) plastic buckets into toilets at a cost of $20 each, assembling jigs and putting together instructions.

David and his son James were asked to help with the project, mainly with obtaining the money required (by way of donation) and the organisation of the production of the emergency toilets.  In the process of assembling 4800 of the devices, David has made a few trips to Christchurch and has a lot of observations about what really happens on the ground in the wake of a disaster.

Many people have quit the city, some forever; some have left the country.  Rebuilding will require more than ten years.  Earthquakes pose immense technical barriers to sewer, gas, and water service. 

And the earthquakes haven’t ended.  Aftershocks of 5.3 on the Richter scale continue, robbing the night of peace and stealing rest from the inhabitants.  You can see it on their faces, he said, and some have snapped.

He described a woman who abdicated all accountability to her family and now flies around the country with no particular goal.

I said, “She starts a sentence, and by the time she finishes you’ve lost track of what it was she was trying to say.” 

David got a strange look on his face, as if to ask if I’d been in the room.

“In the business,” I said, “we call it press of speech, flight of ideas, and tangential associations.”

“You’ve just described her to a T,” he said.

I turned to Bethany.  “What’s your diagnosis?”

“Bipolar disease, manic phase,” she said, and grinned.

Avoiding pedantry, I let Bethany do the talking.  By now she has acquired an immense fund of knowledge by watching the disease progress in so many people.

A wave of mania and depression, and uncovering of bipolar disease, in the wake of severe stress followed by sleep deprivation, makes perfect sense to me.

Ursula said, “And compared to Fukushima, can you imagine what they’re going through?”

For David, the work in the disaster area has been a life-changing event; he and Ursula agree he’s a lot easier to live with.  “He doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said.  “It puts things into perspective.

 My thanks to David for his help with this post.


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One Response to “Bipolar disease unmasked by the Christchurch earthquake”

  1. Marc Says:


    I’m a student journalist at the broadcasting school. I’m currently working on a story about the affect of the earthquake on mental health to air on CTV. I was wondering if you could help me get in touch with Bethany and David who you mention in this blog post.

    Kind regards,


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