June 26, 2013

AliceI am an artist based in London and I have schizophrenia.

I have been very lucky in having many kind and supportive friends with whom I have been open with about my diagnosis, but it wasn’t always so. When I was first unwell I found it incredibly difficult to be open about the condition, particularly in a work environment.

My first job was as a photographer for a newspaper in Devon. I had my first psychotic episode in the office where I worked in 2003, at around the same time as the notorious coverage of Frank Bruno’s ill health in the Sun.

Some of my colleagues were incredibly supportive but some were bullying

Some of my colleagues were incredibly supportive but some were bullying and very unhelpful. The company I was working for decided to demote me when they found out about my illness. I think attitudes are improving thanks to campaigns such as ‘Time to Change’ and the work of others to tackle stigma and I have found that my own openness about the condition has helped other people in my life realise that my illness does not define me.

I spent many years in my twenties living at home with my parents because I was too unwell to fully gain my independence. I would always stay in because I was frightened of going out. However, I was very lucky to meet a supportive friend who, when I was feeling a bit better, suggested that I should try to go to university and study Fine Art. I applied and was very surprised and excited to be accepted at Chelsea College of Art. The move to London was quite a scary prospect, but my friend was studying too at the time and, with his support and encouragement, I was able to do it.

I decided I would be open about my illness

When I moved to London I decided from the start that I would be open about my illness. This didn’t mean going on about it constantly but being honest to my friends and letting them know what might happen and who to call if I was to become unwell. To my surprise, everyone was incredibly understanding and other people told me about their own experiences of mental health problems.

When I became unwell again at university, my friends there helped me through the roughest times and helped me get back on my feet. I had an incredible three years at university and found the staff and students wonderful and made many good friends. When I finished university I was put in touch with a mental health charity and was able to volunteer as a photographer for them and this gave me a renewed sense of purpose.

Art has helped me express difficult feelings

I have recently gained an MA in Fine Art Photography from the Royal College of Art and been fortunate enough to take part in a few art exhibitions since graduation, and am trying to make a career out of my art work.

I think art has helped me a lot in being able to express difficult feelings, and my creative endeavours have helped me channel my energies into something productive. I would recommend getting involved in something creative to anyone with a condition such as mine. It can be a good way to feel better and to do something practical, even if you are not feeling very well and can have great benefits.

There is a lot of stigma attached to schizophrenia

Stigma is still one of the major problems attached to conditions such as schizophrenia.

Last year I witnessed a man I knew being almost thrown out of a local coffee shop for looking a bit eccentric when he was unwell. It made me furious to think that people can be so unkind. When that happened I was able to have a conversation with the owner about my own mental illness and asked him if he would be so unpleasant to someone with a physical problem such as a broken arm or leg? The coffee shop owner opened his mouth like a goldfish but no words came out and the man who was unwell had a coffee with me and then went on his way.

It makes me very angry and upset to see the lack of stories about how so many live with schizophrenia in a brave way. Violent acts by people living with schizophrenia are actually rare and it is impossible for people to have a proper balanced understanding of conditions such as mine, without the nature of reporting being addressed. I understand that is important that violent incidents are reported in the press, but it is also equally important for people to understand the brave lives that many people with schizophrenia lead.

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