I have had serious mental health problems most of my life but despite this I work and live independently.
Feeling part of society has had the single most positive impact on the state of my mental health. Unfortunately, it is the very thing that stigma and prejudice has the most negative impact on.
I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, have experienced depression, mania, psychosis and have made several suicide attempts and completed many more acts of self-harm just to try and cope with, or sometimes block out, the emotional pain I was feeling.
Borderline personality disorder is a little known and even less understood condition within the general population. Sufferers are still often seen as difficult, trouble, badly behaved and, worst of all, attention-seeking.
Seeking attention is a normal part of being human. If someone is asking for this natural need in an unhealthy way, it would be much more constructive if we saw this as an individual’s response to trauma they have experienced. It could help with healing if we did not just view it as self-induced bad behaviour.
This is not to say that I haven’t been a challenge to be around at various points in my life. However, being treated with kindness and respect, and listened to at these times, has had a significantly more positive impact on how I behaved than being treated as some sort of belligerent toddler.
Having a personality disorder diagnosis does not mean that every aspect of my personality is damaged and unhelpful. I have many positive and useful personality traits as well as some troublesome ones, just like everybody else!
I first received mental health treatment at the age of 18 when I was a medical student. Following an overdose, I spent nine months on an acute ward and a year in a therapeutic community for people with a personality disorder diagnosis. If you add up all the time I have spent as an inpatient it comes to 10 years.
I returned to university and gained a degree in Oceanography. After graduating I worked in a specialist dementia resource centre and as a manager of a mental health advocacy service.
At the age of 27 my mental health deteriorated again. At this time, I ran away from hospital and committed a crime. Although I did something potentially dangerous, I didn't harm anyone and had no intention of doing so. It remains the case that people with mental health problems are actually much more likely to be victims of crime. I pleaded guilty and spent some time in prison and as an inpatient.
Since then I have gradually worked my way through the mental health system to where I am now. I was determined to get back to work, live independently and have a ‘normal’ life. I had the support of a mental health employment advisor and I volunteering in various environments for years before applying for paid work.
When I did apply for jobs, I had many interviews for roles that I knew I would be able to do well but employers found it difficult to see past my criminal conviction and mental health problems. I persevered and eventually secured a job and moved into my own flat.
I now work with adults with disabilities and have gained professional teaching qualifications. I have been able to use my life experience positively by emphasising my passion for treating everybody as unique individuals with equal value regardless of difference or disability.
This opportunity to contribute something to society has had an enormously positive influence on my mental health. Whilst I still have some difficulties, I am also very resilient, hard-working and hopefully an asset to my employer.
I would urge employers to have an open mind when interviewing applicants with criminal and mental health histories. Look at what they can do, what they have overcome and what positive impact their experiences may have in the workplace.
Stigma and prejudice are still significant factors that prevent people from feeling part of society, financially independent and less alone. Given that isolation, lack of purpose and poverty are major factors affecting mental health, this seems very unfair.
People who have mental health difficulties are the same as everybody else. Suffering is part of being human and everybody is unique with positive and negative personality traits.
Everyone should be judged on their individual merits, not by a mental health diagnosis. Prejudices are too often still based on myth and fear.