It took a long time for me to become comfortable with my bipolar; when I was diagnosed, six years ago, I went into shock. After the psychiatrist delivered the news with icy detachment, my blood ran cold and I broke into a sweat. He gave me a prescription and dismissed me. I stumbled my way home on the tube, confused, nauseated and dizzy, bumping into people and got lost on the platforms. This was surprising because I’d suspected for a long time that I had bipolar but was too afraid to find out for sure. My therapist had been suggesting that I seek a doctor’s opinion and after a about six months, I reluctantly acquiesced. Although it was not a surprise, the confirmation was horrifying. I couldn’t believe that I was one of those people; my mental illness felt like a black mark against my character and proof that I was fundamentally broken. I couldn’t shake the association with a stereotyped notion of what a mad person was, wearing a straight-jacket and rocking back and forward in a padded cell, or jabbering to themselves in the street.
Fast forward six years and I am so ok with my bipolar that I’ve made it my business to talk and write about it publicly. When I think about my initial response, it’s clear I was reacting to the label associated with mental illness, not the condition itself. Despite the massive social stigma, labels are actually useful because it is impossible to correctly treat an undiagnosed condition. Since that first appointment, my mental health has been transformed now I know what I’m dealing with and how to look after myself. Before, I was scrambling around in the dark, self-medicating to ease the thoughts and feelings that I didn’t realise were symptoms. Of course I still become unwell from time to time but these episodes are far less frequent since I have been properly medicated.
Negative labels associated mental illness are societal constructs, rooted in ignorance and assumptions based on faulty source material. Even with all my expereince and knowledge about bipolar, I still fall into the trap of assuming mental illnesses will be like something from the movies. When I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, I expected it to look like a modern version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In reality, it wasn’t nearly that interesting, in fact being hospitalised was mind-numbingly dull. There’s not much room for growth in a psych unit; they are more like holding pens to support you through a crisis, but that’s about it. I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it has contributed to misunderstanding and misinformation about psychiatric illness and its treatment. There are other, more contemporary examples of misleading depictions of mental illness. I saw Joker last week and while I thought it was a fairly good (the movie is ok but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is stunning), I felt it perpetuated the notion that people with serious psychiatric conditions are dangerous. In reality, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence and exploitation, rather than the perpetrators.
You don’t need to have a diagnosable mental illness to suffer from poor mental health and the stigma hurts everyone. We all go through periods of stress, upheaval and grief that can trigger bouts of depression and anxiety. I have spoken to friends who could really use the support of a doctor and a therapist but won’t get help because of the stigma. It is essential that we alter the paradigm so more people don’t suffer unnecessarily. Society is often talked about as though it’s an amorphous, unimpeachable force. However, society is composed of individuals and its attitudes are shaped by all of us. If we could all work towards understanding mental illness and not rely on hackneyed, misleading stereotypes, we might all be able to regard a label linked with a diagnosis as something helpful. A label should bring hope; it may be painful to accept but at least there is the possibility of treatment and recovery. I’ve learnt to embrace my label; my bipolar is just another part of me, no better or worse than any other component of my whole-self. It can cause problems if I don’t look after it but I’m not defined by bipolar and I’m also not afraid of it. It’s tragic that people are suffering with treatable illnesses, if they only felt emboldened to seek the right help. The way forward is to embrace the label but collectively educate ourselves so we are able to reject the stigma.