October 11, 2012

Dolphins jumping out of sea at sunsetRecently a friend came to visit me, the topic of conversation centered on a young lady living in sheltered accommodation who had been admitted to the psychiatric ward. During the conversation my friend mentioned to me “it’s so sad because she comes from such a normal family”! This statement sums up an attitude towards mental illness that I have come across very often within the close-knit Jewish community in which I live.

Another example: when, a few years ago, I spent some time in the psychiatric ward there was a religious lady admitted. Obviously birds of a feather flock together and we spent a lot of time talking and supporting each other. When I was “released” she looked at me long and hard and said in a low voice “can I trust you not to tell anyone I was in hospital? I don’t want people to think I am crazy”.

The question we have to ask ourselves is why? (And it should be easy to ask since as Jews we love to question!) Why is mental health still sadly such a stigmatized issue, such a secret? Admitting that you have a mental health problem seems to be in some circles akin to admitting you were born on another planet.

To the general public I come across as a “normal” stable person

I have bipolar. To the general public I come across as a “normal” stable person, living a decent life, happily married, a young child and a good job. However, I am different, very different. Every once in a while, at times of great stress, when I am very tired or when money is tight, I will have an “episode”.

These episodes usually consist of my mind, unable to cope with the stress, “switching off” before I go in to what I call “a happy place”. This is not a place of deep relaxation but rather a place of my mind racing with thoughts, of extreme emotions (usually showing a great deal of “love”), a place where I can do anything. For example: book myself a trip across the world or write out blank cheques for friends (who thankfully have never taken me up on my generosity!).

These episodes can last a few minutes or a few days

These episodes can last a few minutes or a few days. As the years go by these episodes have become few and far between but I know that it could happen again at any time and I could end up back in hospital. I take my medication and try not to have too much stress in my life but as a bipolar “sufferer” I know that sometimes this is not enough. I must mention that I have this particular condition in a mild form.

So, I may be your next door neighbour, I may be the girl you see in the shop or the person you speak to on the phone when you call my office and you wouldn’t know. People with mental illness are just like you. We do not have horns and we are not people to be afraid of. In fact, I think experiencing a mental illness can help people become more empathetic, be less judgmental and better friends.

Anyone... could someday experience some kind of mental illness

Anyone, no matter how rich, poor, beautiful, thin or fat they are, could someday experience some kind of mental illness. It may be depression or something else but we can never assume “it will never happen to me”.

The years following my admission in to the psychiatric ward were traumatic: having a daughter going to live elsewhere, homelessness, loneliness and vulnerability. However, I have managed to build up my life as a result of meeting some wonderful people.

Mental illness needs to be treated like any other illness.

What about those people though who don’t have the support of family or friends? There are many people who fear mental illness will bring shame on the family or worry about what people will think. This has to stop! If a family member was in hospital with an illness such as cancer, we would want people to rally around. Mental illness needs to be treated like any other illness.

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