Mental health awareness and resilience: a personal reflection

My blog has always been a place for personal reflection. This post is no exception, but comes with a very clear trigger warning: if you are struggling with your mental health at the moment, you might not want to read on.

This weekend I presented my first RAFAC mental health awareness and resilience course of 2020 to ten adult volunteers in Kent.

For me (and, yes, as an instructor I know I am biased) the course is one of the most important of all of those available within our organisation.

Young people are under an immense amount of pressure and face many different individual risk factors, and I believe that as volunteers working with young people it is important we understand those risks, the effects they can have and what we can do to help support our cadets.

But this article isn’t about the course, and I have no desire to betray either the contents of the course or the confidences of those who participate. Instead, this article is about me: my own personal reflection.

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I’m supporting Bipolar UK this Christmas

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another
~ Charles Dickens

Christmas is about giving.

Sure, it’s nice to receive presents from your loved (and not-so-loved) ones, but nothing beats the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you brighten someone else’s day with a meaningful gift.

But while we fret about chocolates and jewellery, tinsel and turkeys, it is important to remember that for many people, Christmas can be anything but a joyful time of year.

I may not have much in this world, but I have always sought to ensure my Christmas helps others in need.

So, every year, I buy my Christmas cards from a charity supporting those who may be experiencing a lonely, sad or empty Christmas. The profits then go to helping those who need support both at Christmas and throughout the year.

In recent years, my charity of choice has invariably been the Royal British Legion, for reasons which are, perhaps, obvious.

This year, however, I have decided to support a different good cause.

This year, I am supporting Bipolar UK.

Bipolar disorder is a frightening illness which is seen in between an estimated 1% and 2% of the population. Whilst the highs and lows can be equally as distressing, the extreme lows caused by bipolar mean those who suffer are much more likely to take their own lives.

Bipolar increases the risk of suicide 20 times.

For many people with bipolar – and their families and friends – Christmas will be anything but merry. But Bipolar UK are here to help.

Every year, Bipolar UK support 80,000 individuals through a dedicated support line, network of support groups and more.

For the year ending 31 March 2016, Bipolar UK spent £825,313 (82% of its expenditure) on activities supporting both those with bipolar and their friends, families and work colleagues.

I know that the purchase of a handful of Christmas cards is not exactly a grand gesture. But, as someone with a diagnosis of Bipolar II, I also know how important support is to people in times of crisis.

That’s why every Christmas card I send this year will go some way to providing that support where it is needed the most.

If you would like to support the vital work of Bipolar UK, you can make a donation here.

What would your suicide note say?

This post comes with an emphatic trigger warning

Being afflicted with Bipolar Disorder is one of the most incredible and yet terrifying, joyous and yet soul-destroying feelings in the world.

The periods of elation often feel like the greatest days of one’s life; the highs can spark an almost infectious level of satisfaction and are where I find the height of my creativity. Yet they can also be the source of increased risk, and, in reality, it is no less important to control episodes of mania (or hypomania).

The periods of depression, however, almost always feel like the end of life itself. Whilst trapped in the dark and lonely embrace desperate and despairing cell of one’s own mind, the only way out can often appear to be stopping the slow and painful beat of one’s weary heart.

My Bipolar Disorder is classified as Bipolar II, that is to say the highs are only mild (hypomanic) compared to those with the more severe Bipolar I (manic). The lows (depression) are also usually much more frequent than the highs.

I have often spoken about my Bipolar as a matter of fact: it is an illness and I suffer from it. I have never spoken about how it as a form of my personality. Until now.

One of my greatest passions is writing. Whether it be blogging, poetry or fiction, I love expressing my creativity and innermost thoughts through the medium of the written word. It would, therefore, come as no surprise to learn that one of the things I think of most when I am enduring an episode of depression is what would be in my final piece of writing.

What would I write in my suicide note?

During my deepest period of depression, in the winter of 2012, I was prompted to seek professional help for the first time. I was diagnosed with depression initially, but Bipolar II followed and treatment (such as it was) continued until November 2013.

That low point was the only time I had been so hopelessly depressed as to stop thinking about what I would say in my final goodbye and actually put pen to paper.

To this day, I cannot recall what I had written, nor where the fruits of my labour had come to rest, but now, as my personal circumstances have triggered a new episode of depression spiraling dangerously close to the severity of the one I experienced in 2012, I find myself considering that question once again.

The suicide note is not just about saying goodbye to people close to you, it can also be used to open your heart and reveal the trauma you have been living with – or posthumously settle scores with people you feel have wronged you. When Elliott Johnson, a young Tory, took his own life at the age of 21, he left a letter to his parents claiming that he had been bullied by more senior Conservatives. Just one paragraph on that letter was enough to force a government minister to resign and open a dark secret of the Party which continues to unravel.

Clearly, I have no such explosive skeletons in any cupboard of mine, but surely everyone has something to confess to the world which they would only like to announce on their deathbed? My list of people who I feel have wronged me would run into a few pages, and I would need to decide whose offences were severe enough to spend the energy necessary to include them in my farewell address.

Am I just overreacting? Will I actually fall so deeply into despair that I end up writing another final letter? Will it be the last thing I ever write? Honestly, I don’t know, but the very thought terrifies me to the core. The personal circumstances which have led me to this point show no signs of improving any time soon; now that the illness has taken hold of the problems and claimed them as its own, there is no telling how far it will go.

While I was living in Barcelona, it was, undoubtedly, difficult not earning money. But, for a number of reasons, I was coping and I was happy. I love my homeland, but since I returned four weeks ago, my life and my happiness seem to have crumbled around me. The future I was planning and looking forward to in Catalunya now seems unlikely (at least in my anxious and pessimistic mind) to ever materialise. The dream I have held for many years – and desperately tried to cling onto for the past few months – is dead, and it is difficult for me to see any way to revive it. No other thought I’d ever had about my future even comes close to what I had moved to Barcelona to build, and, honestly, I cannot see any of the alternatives ever making me happy.

The other problem I face in avoiding the worst case scenario is that now I am back in Medway, my fate is, to a large extent, in the hands of an overworked and under-resourced mental health service. Don’t get me wrong, every contact I have had with them in the past has been helpful and professional, but it is incredibly difficult to get that all-important first contact. Mental health services in this country are still the poor cousin of physical health services, often forgotten about by the politicians and suits in offices making the decisions which matter. Those of us who need to use those services, especially in a crisis, only ever end up suffering.

The truth is that I don’t actually know what I would put in a suicide note this time around. There is so much more going on this time that I cannot make sense of it for long enough to put it into a logical order. And, no matter how low I sink into depression, I honestly do not think my vanity would ever allow me to end it all without first having been able to write my last goodbye, clearly and unambiguously.

Tackling the stigma

What links Ted Turner, Adam Ant, Spike Milligan, Frank Bruno, Mel Gibson, Nina Simone, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Sinatra and Stephen Fry? Perhaps the latter offered the greatest clue.

They may all have been extremely successful in their respective fields, but there is another, more serious link. They have all been diagnosed with a mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder.

Manic depression, as it was previously know, affects about 1% of adults in the UK. It is a severe mood disorder, involving extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression) which can make it difficult for those who suffer from the condition to lead a normal life.

Mr Fry, of QI and Kingdom fame, explains best:

Crucially, it is, like so many other mental illnesses, a condition which, whilst intrusive, can be controlled – and allow the sufferer to lead a normal life.

So why is there still so much stigma surrounding mental illness? Why, when The Times announced that MPs are to get on-site help for mental illness (as they do for physical illness), did some people react with incredulity that individuals with such an illness could hold the office of MP?

The stigma surrounding psychiatric conditions highlights one area where society has failed to move on from archaic beliefs. It is, in fact, the only area where, by Act of Parliament, discrimination against the mentally ill is perfectly legal.

However, on Monday, two significant events happened in Westminster. One, referenced above, was where the Commons Members’ Estimate Committee approved a modest £25,000 fund for psychiatric care for MPs. The second was the passing of an obscure Private Members’ Bill introduced by freshman Gavin Barwell through it’s Third Reading in the House of Lords.

The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill will shortly receive Royal Assent and become the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013.

It tackles three key areas where discrimination is rife, yet should play no part in a civilised society:

  1. Members of Parliament – the rule that members who have been sectioned for six months or more are removed form office has been repealed, and other common law ruling disqualifying MPs from taking office on the grounds of mental health have been abolished;
  2. Jurors – the rule that anyone who had suffered from a mental condition is disqualified from jury service has been repealed, so that only the most seriously mentally ill (i.e. those liable to be or actually detained under the Mental Health Act at the time) are disqualified; and
  3. Company Directors – the rule that directors of public and private companies can have their appointment terminated on the grounds of mental health has been repealed.

Mr Barwell, and his House of Lords partner Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, must be congratulated in not only achieving government support for this Private Members Bill, but also achieving cross-party support in aiding its smooth transition through the process (with only a minor technical amendment).

It is only one small step, but may make a huge difference in the lengthy battle against the stigma of mental illness.