Here’s a big question: what does the experience of mental illness stigma feel like?
For me, the stigma of mental illness (and particularly the stigma of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital) meant that I spent the best part of three months in said hospital, with only one single visit from a friend. No get well soon cards, no grapes, no flowers.
My friends were not unkind or unthinking. Far from it. They were worried and confused. And because no one felt free to talk about what was happening to me they also felt a little frightened and embarrassed. Fearful of how I would react to them knowing I was so ill, and too uncomfortable to acknowledge my madness. There is a euphemistic hush around mental illness:
Kathryn is finding motherhood difficult. Kathryn needs a rest. Kathryn is still recovering from a traumatic birth. Kathryn is getting some help.
The contrast to a physical illness is clear. If I had been in hospital with a broken leg or appendicitis then my friends would have been told clearly what I was suffering from, how I was being treated, and my prognosis.
I don't blame my friends at all. I realise now that they were waiting for my permission to talk about it. Six months to the day since my admission to hospital I posted a public message on Facebook. I wrote about being committed to a psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis. I wrote about how I thought I was going to be burned alive, or locked in a room and never let out, or how at one point I questioned whether the universe existed at all. I wrote about how, with the support of my incredible family and some amazing doctors and nurses, I beat the psychosis and re-emerged as my old self. I wrote that I was lucky, when many others who experience postpartum psychosis are not.
My iPhone came alive as soon as I posted that, pinging with messages of support from family and friends. They thought I was brave, strong, inspirational even. Many hadn't known why exactly I had been AWOL after The Boy's birth, so they learnt something new about postpartum psychosis. I was so touched by everyone's support, but at the same time a little sad that that support had to wait until I had spoken up. Because many psychiatric patients never speak up, and live out their illnesses alone and in shame.
It did not really help matters that for the first month or more of my admission, the senior doctors advised against any visitors other than my husband and occasional visits from my parents. Other visits were thought likely to trigger more stress and anxiety. One close (and admirably persistent!) pair of friends did attempt to visit earlier on in my stay, but were put off, which I didn't realise this at the time. They did successfully visit later on, when I'd already had some home leave. And, looking back, the physical layout and facilities of the ward were not conducive to successful visits. My room was too small for visitors, and the communal areas were often noisy and, as you'd expect, full of other patients with their own needs and issues.
There is very little you can do or say to make matters worse for a severely mentally ill friend or family member. But there are a hell of a lot of things you can do and say to make things better. Start with "Hello". "When can I visit?" "Do you need some clean socks?" "Shall I bring you an M&S sandwich?" You get the idea!