November 3, 2011

Photo of Catherine by Imelda Michalczyk at http://www.rebeladelica.comIn February 2009, I was sectioned, tranquilised and detained in a secure psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, my stay was short; after seven days, I was given a week’s leave at home, following which I was discharged. In the months that followed, while the distress caused by the mental illness burnt painfully enough, it was the stigma, the mark of shame, that made my life almost unliveable.

I have had a long history of mental health illness. I was diagnosed with depression in the early-1990s, when I was at university, and have been prescribed anti-depressants for most of my adult life. When I first told my close friends about my diagnosis, they reacted with disbelief and urged me not to take my prescription. I was popular and successful academically and I don’t think I fitted their ideas of someone with mental health difficulty.

Largely due to self stigma, I went on to choose to conceal my mental health illness. I did not disclose it when I applied for jobs and I certainly never told anyone apart from very close friends. Once, I spent a plane trip with a company director who I particularly respected and we somehow got onto the topic of depression. She simply disbelieved that any such condition existed, commenting that sometimes she felt really down herself but that she pulled herself together. I have no idea whether what she was describing was some sort of depression or not but it was with excruciating discomfort that I listened as she continued with her spiel at some length.

Telling my story
Surprisingly, it was being sectioned while experiencing an episode of psychotic mania, perhaps one of the most stigmatised of all mental health illnesses, that turned the tables in terms of me opening up about my condition. I started writing about my psychotic experience as a form of self-therapy and I went on to publish my work – my e-book ‘Psychosis through My Eyes’ is now available from Chipmunka Publishing.

As part of the book writing and marketing process, I have been open about my experience and have talked about my psychotic episode using social media like Facebook and Twitter. I have been amazed by the response I have had with numerous friends telling me that they too have had mental illnesses.

Telling an employer?
One sticky issue for me has been what to tell potential employers. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is no longer possible for employers to ask about disabilities in pre-employment health questionnaires before offering a job. This is good news since most of people feel that disclosing a mental health problem could damage their career. One in five workers told Mind that they feared losing their job if they were open about a mental health issue at work. I currently work for myself but if I was applying for a job I feel that I probably would disclose as I would want to talk about my book as a significant achievement and I could not do that without revealing that I had experienced psychosis.

Social contact
Social contact—direct, personal contact between people without experience of mental illness and people with mental health problems—is one of the most promising strategies for reducing stigma and discrimination. As part of my research for this blog, I asked my close friends whether witnessing me go through a severe mental health problem had affected their perceptions of mental health in any way. My friends all said that it had improved their insight. One told me that what she’d seen me go through had challenged her previous perception of mental health problems being permanent because I had proved to her that recovery was possible. “I’d thought before that a mental health problem was a label that stuck,” she said.

My broadcasting-style approach isn’t for everyone but I would like to pass on the message that for me opening up has been an enormously positive experience.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.