June 14, 2013

MarkMany people take some kind of medication. Some people take pills to bring down their blood pressure, some people take something to relieve heartburn after a hot curry, and others take tablets to help with arthritis after playing too much football in their youth.

I have hayfever. I use a nasal spray twice a day, which normally does the trick. If I’m having a really bad day, I’ll take an antihistamine as well.

So far, so boring. I suppose you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to write about hayfever. After all, hayfever is a very common illness. It is quite mundane and uninteresting. There is no stigma surrounding hayfever. Nobody is ashamed to admit that they have hayfever. And rightly so.

I also have bipolar disorder. I take medication for it every day. If I’m having a really bad day, I may need to take another type of medication.

I regard my bipolar disorder in much the same way as my hayfever

I regard my bipolar disorder in much the same way as I regard my hayfever. Of course, there are major differences. I do not wish to trivialise my bipolar disorder, but both it and hayfever are conditions that won’t go away of their own accord and for which I have to take regular medication to manage.

There are 2.7million men in England who currently have a mental health problem. This is by no means a small number. But mental health, and in particular men’s mental health, remains largely hidden. I find it rather ironic that we men are so reluctant to talk about our mental health but can’t shut up about how ill we feel when we have a cold!

I used to try to hide my bipolar

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I used to try to hide it (I must have been mad to think I could hide a full-blown episode of mania from the world!). I used to dread going out in the evenings because it would mean that I had to take a tablet in public. Even once I “came out” about my bipolar, I was still nervous about taking my tablet in front of people. I was worried in case it made other people feel uncomfortable; this in turn made me feel uncomfortable. I would say that I was going to the toilet and I would take my tablet there.

It wasn't until some friends pointed it out to me that I realised how ridiculous this was. In trying to appear “normal”, I was acting like a drug addict! I stopped hiding my bipolar and started to just take the tablet if it was time to do so. Most people don’t bat an eyelid. Some ask what it is and what it is for and I reply, “Lithium for bipolar disorder.” I don’t make a big deal out of it and other people tend not to either. It is so liberating to hold your head up high and not hide a significant part of your life away.

We should also be tolerant of others’ intolerance

Yes, it is very scary at first. You never know how other people will react. You may have heard someone make an intolerant comment about mental illness. But the chances are that if someone holds such views, they probably haven’t had much experience of mental health problems. If someone’s only “knowledge” of mental health issues is a caricature that wouldn’t look out of place in A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, can they really be blamed for their prejudices?

Just as we would like people to be more tolerant towards us, I think we should also be tolerant of others’ intolerance. Only then can we have a conversation and start to break down barriers.

I am quite lucky in that I have never really had a bad reaction when discussing my mental health with friends, workmates or acquaintances. A small minority have been nosy and have bombarded me with questions such as, “What is the craziest thing you have ever done?” When faced with a reaction like this, I dodge the question or tell a relatively tame story. Some people just need to get this out of their system; once they have, and they know that they won’t get much in the way of gossip, you can have a normal conversation with them.

Being open is the best way to dispel myths

The best way to dispel myths and overcome stigma is by us being open about who we are and the difficulties that we face. Of course, not everyone is ready to go public and to do so is always a personal decision. But, people’s prejudices soon fade when they realise that people with mental health problems aren’t really that different. And if they don’t, I remember the great Dr Seuss quote: “Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.”

I look forward to the day when, just like hayfever sufferers, people with mental health problems are neither stigmatised nor feel ashamed. Whilst that day is not here yet, with more people prepared to speak out, and with more people prepared to listen, that day is getting closer.

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