April 15, 2011

Andrea Woodside"Catherine Zeta-Jones has seemingly joined ‘the club’ - a club to which approximately 1% of the world’s population belongs.  As a member of this almost universally misunderstood guild, I read about Ms Zeta-Jones’ voluntary admission to a mental health facility this week for the treatment of what has been described as Bipolar Disorder II with interest. 

My first thought was not of sadness for what must feel a lonely and frightening time for her and her family (although this followed of course), but one of gratitude that someone perceived by society as successful and stable had ‘come out’.

Those of us who live with the disorder may belong to the club, but admitting one’s affiliation can be a difficult and painful process, and one that can take a lifetime.  For the many of us living with bipolar disorder who feel silenced and shunned, it is easy to be thankful for the person, famous or not, who challenges stigma and misunderstanding by openly stating that they have experience of mental distress.  

Catherine Zeta-JonesHowever, as I was reminded yesterday, celebrities who do so risk being perceived as ‘publicity hungry’.  An acquaintance of mine suggested that Ms Zeta-Jones’ decision to go public with her experience of the disorder was worthy of Max Clifford; designed to garner support for herself when the public eye had shifted away from her husband’s battle against cancer.

Is it just me, or is this cynical view terribly damaging?  Does the fact that Ms Zeta-Jones is talented and successful mean that she is immune from mental distress?  If it does, then we’d all be wise to run off to Hollywood and become movie stars post haste.  Had I done, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache. 

Bipolar disorder, which affects an estimated 723,000 people in the UK, is not all rolling countryside and breakfast in bed; it’s not long walks before lunch and carefully crafted group therapy sessions in the sunny and tastefully decorated atrium of a mental health facility.  It’s not quite as pleasant as that.  The detritus left behind for many of us takes years to sift through; broken lives and lost jobs, addiction and despair, loneliness and stigma. Who are we to know what someone’s private experience of the disorder has been? I suggest that we can at least imagine it’s an arduous and excruciating road for anyone. 

If this recent revelation is a publicity stunt, as my acquaintance suggests, at least the disorder is again in the press, and is clearly generating discussion and debate.  This is a good thing.  If it is not, I wish Ms Zeta-Jones the very best on the road she is travelling.  It remains that if the mention of bipolar disorder inspires even one person to learn more about it and its effects, those of us living with it have a better chance of full citizenship in society.  We are not members of a closed club; all are welcome to join us in our fight to be heard and understood."

Andrea Woodside is a Mental Health and Corporate Wellbeing Consultant and a media volunteer for Time to Change. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II in 1996.

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