November 30, 2012

Stephen Fry | Time to ChangeA recent article in The Telegraph by Max Pemberton - 'Celebrities do little to lift the 'stigma' of mental illness' - questions whether celebrities who 'come out' about mental health problems do more harm than good. Among other things, he discusses an unnamed celebrity whose public disclosure about being bipolar apparently infuriated the people who attended a mental health drop-in.

Pemberton himself asks whether the experiences of celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones give “a warped view ... that differs greatly from the experiences of the majority of sufferers”.

But surely that depends not just on the particular celebrity, or the individual 'normal' person with mental health problems – how I love that word 'normal'! - but also the mood the latter is in at the time? This is certainly true, I've found, for those of us diagnosed with bipolar, or manic depression to use the older term.

When I'm really down, a reference to a high-flyer... would probably either a) annoy me, or, more likely b) sail right over my head

When I'm really down, a reference to a high-flyer who has managed to achieve great things in spite of their mental health problems would probably either a) annoy me, or, more likely b) sail right over my head. However, the same would be true if someone pointed out someone else who was managing, say, to hold down a part-time admin job or, on a really bad day, simply to get out of bed, have a bath, and get dressed.

On what I call 'stable' and 'good' (non manic) days, hearing of the achievements of people like Stephen Fry, Robbie Williams, and Ruby Wax give me hope: hope that I too can achieve things. Hope of acceptance.

In the past, if I had to explain – for whatever reason – my diagnosis, I have used different terms depending on who I was talking to. If it was someone I didn't know well, I tended to use 'bipolar'. It sounds scientific, and for some people, it won't mean much. If it's a friend, or someone I want to engage in conversation, I say 'manic depression'. It may not be pretty, and it may be old-fashioned, but it certainly gets the message across.

[Stephen Fry] has spoken out about some pretty extreme behaviour

But back to those celebrities, in particular, Stephen Fry. He's my favourite 'bipolar poster boy' for a number of reasons. One of those is that, despite having been diagnosed with what he's termed 'bipolar lite' (cyclothemia), he has spoken out about some pretty extreme behaviour. This includes walking on his school's roof when he was a teenager, and, more famously, seriously considering gassing himself with his car before disappearing overseas without telling anyone. How this and the other things he's disclosed can possibly be termed 'bipolar lite' bemuses me, but that's not the point of this blog.

I can't say whether his or any other celebrities' experiences were in the back of my mind the few times I remember 'coming out' as manic-depressive. Some of my friends found out because they witnessed the way I was acting; most, because my partner rang to let them know I had been hospitalised, and why. The ones I 'disclosed' to are the friends I have made since that first full-blown mania incident, and the two hospitalisations which followed.

I was extremely anxious that my disclosure might spell the end of our friendship

I decided to 'mainstream' and, rather than join an interest group run by a mental health charity, attend a general one instead. I don't remember how long I knew the woman who ran the group when, for reasons too complicated to explain, I decided to tell her. I was extremely anxious that my disclosure might spell the end of our friendship.

It turned out that she had a close friend who was also bipolar. Likewise, when I more or less blurted it out to another woman in the group, I discovered that the second woman had a close relative who was manic-depressive. Amusingly – at least I thought so – it was only after speaking to me that she drew a possible link between her relation's obesity, and his medication: this despite him having been diagnosed decades earlier.

Have all my mental health disclosures gone so smoothly? Of course not. 

Have all my mental health disclosures gone so smoothly? Of course not. One friend who took the news that I was bipolar well was obviously shaken when she later found out I'd been in psychiatric hospital multiple times. Clearly, there are limits, even to the most open and flexible of minds

Then, there's the messy world of work. This is where I believe Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta Jones, and the like have the true advantage. It's not that they are necessarily more or less likely to have long periods of illness, or be treated in nicer surroundings – though the latter is almost certainly true. It's that celebrities are much more likely to continue to be hired – whether it be to present, act, sing, whatever.

In contrast, people like myself can't truthfully fill in an application form without fear of it being most likely chucked in to a bin. Particularly now, with a recession on, and it being an employers' market.

there's a limit to what your helping hands can achieve

Which is why this blog is signed with a pseudonym. It makes me feel a coward, but for now, it's how it has to be. Thanks, Stephen, I really do appreciate all you, Ruby, Frank Bruno and the like have done for me and people like me. But, for now at least, there's a limit to what your helping hands can achieve.

What do you think about the issues raised in this blog? Share your views with us on Twitter >>

Or pledge to share your experience of mental health today and find out how talking tackles discrimination.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.