I’d like to say my proudest moment at an October “Time to Change” event in Durham was when I accidentally swore – twice, it was a bad accident -during a talk in a Methodist church. Oh, and in front of a vicar. And a room full of older people.
But it wasn’t.
I’ve challenged mental health stigma before: as part of the “Time to Change” campaign, in the course of my job as a mental health recovery worker, and, not least of all, as someone with a diagnosis of bipolar. But this 1 October event was the first time I did so as a guest speaker. Stupidly, it was the last place I expected to encounter such stigma … during the middle of my talk, too.
Despite that slip up (1), I am generally respectful of older people: it is, after all, a major ambition of mine to join their ranks. Of course, by some standards I already have: I’ve been eligible for “Saga” holidays for several years now, and steadily acquiring grey hairs for around 20. Sadly, most of the truly useful stuff – retirement; eligibility for a state pension, and the right to receive my increasingly elusive bus pass (2) – is a decade or more away.
As well as giving a talk, I also did a creative writing workshop. Like most such groups I’ve led or taken part in, it was good fun, and resulted in some interesting and diverse work. The chit chat before the day’s events actually started proved much harder work. I happened to sit at a table with someone who hadn’t been speaking to me for more than two minutes before asking: “Is bipolar a mental illness?”
Rather than respond with a remark about the Pope’s Catholicism, or the sleeping habits of bears, I simply said “Yes”. Then came what to me seemed an obvious question: “Why do you ask?”
It seemed my new acquaintance had a relative with bipolar: a relative who, I soon concluded, the speaker rather resented. My acquaintance had a difficult life, and became understandably depressed. Despite everything, they had just got on with it. Unlike, in their opinion, their relative, who had been in and out of hospital so often that the speaker told them they should “get their own room” there.
So why was I so surprised when, during the course of my talk, this person spoke up from the audience, and said that people experiencing mental health problems should “just get on with it”?
Sometimes, I agreed. But if that was always the case, why do we have so many psychiatric hospitals? Why do we have Community Psychiatric Nurses (CPNs), or psychiatrists, or psychologists?
If “just getting on with it” worked every time, would there even be such a thing as mental health stigma? Would there be any need for the likes of “Time to Change”?
Burying a problem doesn’t make it go away – certainly, not in my experience. Nor, apparently, does “just getting on with it” result in a serene old age.
For now, I think I’ll continue to seek help: whether through friends, mental health services, or both. Because I’d like the picture on my bus pass to be a happy one.
(1) ok, two slip ups
(2) I’m determined to have a pass, even if it ends up being issued to my urn.