So here’s the thing about mental ill-health. It is a huge subject, it’s a taboo subject and to be honest, it’s a scary subject. But it doesn’t have to be.
There was a big government-backed media campaign here in the UK a few years back. It ran with the slogan ‘It’s time to talk, it’s time to change’ and you can see the ad they ran here. It wasn’t a bad attempt but nonetheless the somewhat reductionist reply is the one that so often rolls off our tongues: “You know, good days and bad.” And is it just me, or does that feel like the script for those of us who have been in this situation. We don’t want to go into lots of detail, but we don’t want to lie and say it’s all rosy and wonderful.
A problem I’ve personally faced is one that concerns people with variations of Bipolar disorder in particular. It will be a familiar story to a lot of people with experience of this illness; it’s the one where you’ve got loads of energy, you’re animated and you’re best friends with everyone. The world is sparkly, you feel great and so either you are not asked ‘are you OK?’ or if you are the answer you give is in the light of this wonderful buzz of energy infusing your very soul. When I was first unwell it began with a manic episode. I ran for days on maybe three hours sleep, I worked my socks off 12 hours a day and I still felt great. I also had no insight; I thought I could maintain this euphoria forever. I thought the rest of my life would be a hyper-real Technicolor fairground ride and I didn’t want to or feel I needed to get off. My point is – I felt amazing. Sure, to other people I was maybe a little erratic, eccentric. People could tell that something wasn’t quite right, but they couldn’t pin it down. And on the odd occasion someone asked me if I was ‘OK’ the answer was a resounding ‘YES!’… Oh how I miss the manic energy (but that’s another story).
Even for my husband who was watching as I sped along the path of life it was hard to say definitively that something was wrong. I think the tipping point for him was when I started to express my delusional thoughts. By this point my head was swimming with amazing thoughts; thoughts on the origins of life on Earth, of aliens for neighbours and what I termed Quantum Philosophy. And still I felt great, wonderful, full of life. I was delusionally suicidal and I never registered that it was strange to be planning the end of my life in the name of some pseudo-scientific theory about gravity and flight.
What I am driving at here is that sometimes we need people around us to be more aware, more probing than the advert suggests. I’m not saying everyone you meet needs the Inquisition every time you start chatting. But understanding that mental illness means more than just depression is vital to breaking down the taboos in our society. The words Schizophrenia and Mania are scary to those who haven’t taken the time to educate themselves on the subject. The brain is a mystery to most people; the brain is complicated and illnesses that effect its functioning are shrouded in a grey veil of silence. The advert I shared earlier sums it up quite nicely. People imagine all the ‘crazy’ things a mentally ill person might do. But in truth you are more likely to hear the ‘good days and bad’ response. Just don’t always take that at face value.