Raising our Voices: Stigma and Bipolar Disorder (For Equilibrium Magazine Issue 63)

I was asked by Equilibrium magazine, an online magazine dedicated to mental health and wellbeing by those with lived experience, to write an article for them. I chose to write it on stigma and bipolar disorder and here it is. You can also read it online at :   https://issuu.com/antz333/docs/equilibrium_2063

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I am very excited to be writing my first article for Equilibrium. In this article I
will discuss stigma and life with bipolar.

I have lived with bipolar disorder for thirteen years, having been diagnosed at just
sixteen years old. The illness runs in my family, but it was still a shock when I
found myself unwell in hospital as a teenager. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder,
which means moods can oscillate between depressive lows and manic highs that
can be treated with medication and therapies. When depressed, one might find
oneself feeling extremely negative and unable to do activities previously enjoyed
or, in bad cases, suicidal and unable to cope with life. When in a manic state, one
may be in a heightened hyperactive state, talking fast/not making sense and
unable to sit still. A person may act in ways they would not usually behave when
in a typical state. This can then spill over into psychosis, with delusions and a loss
of touch with reality, which can eventually lead to hospitalisation in severe cases.
There is currently no cure for the disorder; however, mood stabilising medications
such as Lithium, prescribed by a psychiatrist, and courses of therapy can very
much help. It is believed that bipolar may be caused by a chemical imbalance in
the brain, but there is still so much we do not know. It is for this reason that
stigma about the disorder and other mental health conditions, pervades across
the world.

So, what is stigma? Stigma can be defined by the Oxford dictionary as a ‘mark of
disgrace associated with a circumstance, quality or person’. In terms of mental
illness, people fear what they have not experienced, do not know and do not
understand. It is the fear and ignorance that then perpetuates myths about those
who struggle with their mental health.

Due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of mental illness, in our case, bipolar
disorder, fear and stigma are most definitely generated. When people haven’t
been through the suicidal, heart-wrenching lows, and the sometimes equally
terrible highs, they will comment that the person is ‘attention-seeking’ and just
doing it to get a reaction from other people. We have seen this recently when
depressed celebrities, for example singer Sinéad O’Connor (who has bipolar), open
up to the world about their demons. They get criticised, shot down, told they are
being drama queens, silenced, as if their problems are trivial. There is nothing
trivial about serious mental illness or how the brain can trick you into feeling.
There is nothing trivial about feeling so unwell you can’t get out of bed, wash,
live. There is nothing trivial about experiencing suicidal tendencies and not having
support, because support networks are the one thing that keep bipolar sufferers,
and those with other conditions, going. Without my support network, I know I
would find things so much harder.

So, how do we tackle this stigma? In one word: talking. Telling people about our
experiences. Sharing the world of people who have mental health issues and
reflecting it back to wider society, through explaining to non sufferers what its
like to live with a mental health condition. It Is so important to show wider
society the world inhabited by people with mental health conditions. Everyone
is different. Its vital to explain the unexplainable. Talking about our symptoms
but showing how we can reach recovery or what recovery means to us.

I began speaking about my experiences online via my WordPress blog ‘Be Ur Own
Light’ (www.beurownlight.com) about a year and a half ago. The blog began as a
diary, as I was navigating life with a difficult anxiety disorder which made it
difficult for me to hold down a job long term. I still live with this anxiety and am
learning how to manage it. When I first began writing, I did it secretly and only
showed it to close family members and wrote under pseudonyms. I was effectively
testing the waters to see the reaction. I was frightened I would get negative
feedback.

I began writing for charities such as Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Change and
Bipolar UK, under pseudonyms, because I didn’t yet feel able to associate my name
with the illness. I was scared, and I suppose was experiencing some self-stigma. In
thirteen years I had never written about my illness or mental health online,
though I had explained it to close friends. I remember the day when my first
article for Rethink was published –‘Being Jewish and Bipolar’- and getting hundreds
of likes, shares and positive comments. This built my confidence, and, over the
course of a year, I wrote for more charities and even started writing for the
Huffington Post Lifestyle blog and other websites/magazines under my real name.

A month or two ago, I decided to write all my mental health blogs under my real
name. There is still so much work for us all to do to bring down the stigma, but it
starts from raising our voices. We deserve to be heard and we need to talk in order
to make mental health issues ‘normal’ in society and to fight for better treatment.
One in four people suffer, although I would argue the figure is more like one in
two. Together we can battle, speak out and one day beat the stigma.

Eleanor Segall is a mental health writer and advocate, who has written for many
charities and magazines. She currently works for mental health and learning
disability charity The Judith Trust. Her blog ‘Be Ur Own Light’
(www.beurownlight.com) is read globally and tackles her life with mental health
issues and those of guest bloggers. Eleanor can be found on Twitter and Instagram

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Guest Post by Arslan Butt: The Invisible Crisis: College/ University students coping with Mental Illness

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(image: EFTO)

“College/ university life,” young, enthusiastic individuals freshly out of school are either excited for this new phase of their lives or tend to think of it as another societal hurdle they need to overcome.

There’s a lot of stress that new students end up experiencing because they’re going into a different educational setting and they want to prove themselves.

Whether it’s worrying about academics or their college-related social life, college/university affects everyone in different ways and thus, comes with its own set of pros and cons. Students are subject to varying levels of stress and other mental illnesses that need to be addressed.

There’s just so much pressure when you’re a first year student. You have this drive to prove yourself but at the same time you don’t want to stand out the wrong way. There’s nothing more stressful than being the student everyone jokes about,” said Stacey Wilson (Film and Digital Media student at Santa Cruz, California).

“Dealing with college/university life is tough enough. Add in the drama that goes on at home and everything just gets tougher for any student,” said Janene Secor (English Major from The Ohio State University)

Youth Are Vulnerable to Mental Health Issues

Parents and students might not have mental illness on their mind when they start college; however, such a period of young adulthood is a crucial one for mental health. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 75% mental illnesses are triggered by the age of 24. Some are triggered in adolescence and some start in college/university.

Furthermore, in 2012, one in five people from 43.8 million adults experienced some type of mental illness. That’s why knowing about mental illness and how it is triggered is important especially when it comes to students.

Around 95% of the directors of the college counselling centre have stated that the number of students with psychological problems in an increasing concern on campus. About 70% of the directors also believe that the number of students who are a victim of major psychological problems has increased in recent times.

Similarly, the rates of depression and anxiety have also increased compared to the previous decade. According to a survey involving college students, being conducted in 2013, found that 40% of men and 57% of women experienced overwhelming anxiety while 27% of men and 33% of women experienced episodes of severe depression that made functioning difficult for them.

Studies also suggest that almost one-third of students fulfill the criteria for depression or anxiety while they are in college.

The Importance of Mental Health Awareness

Depression is stated as the biggest reason of disability across the world which affects around 300 million people globally. Yet, mental health is still stigmatised greatly in our society.

When people talk about their mental illness in society, they can face stigmas although these are starting to fall.

Many studies also agree that to end the discrimination against those with mental ill health, it is important that people are provided with the right education about mental health conditions. 

Furthermore, increasing the accessibility of treatment and screening of psychological problems is crucial for college going students.

In some cases, children that are diagnosed with mental health disorders end up with poor educational outcomes and thus, poor economic outcomes as well. This varies from person to person. 

Offering Students the Support They Need

Research quite clearly states how strong behavioural and mental health supports can improve the life of a student.

When the students get help for psychological problems, then counselling can have a big impact on personal well-being, retention, and academic success.

 

Offering Mental Health Facilities in Colleges

It is being observed that students have started to utilize the counselling services provided by colleges/universities in a much more positive manner and more frequently. However, there has been a stigma-based backlash from a few college administrators and professors that call their students less resilient and needy because the students use these services.

This attitude is the reason why a majority of students refrain from asking for help, and this is what colleges exactly need to eradicate.

Many colleges/universities have started introducing programmes that directly challenge the prejudice and ableism by not discriminating against students that are struggling with mental illness. Colleges should aim to make mental health care accessible to everyone just like UCLA in America has.

Colleges should aim to provide free mental health treatment and screenings for all of their students. UCLA has started off their efforts of educating their faculty and students about mental illness by holding a voluntary sessions for students to determine if they need help with their mental health.

If a student shows signs of depression, UCLA will provide them with therapeutic services for free, according to the chancellor Gene Block. UCLA has also decided to provide their students with an eight-week programme on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is  a goal-oriented, focused, and short-term therapeutic treatment that asks for collaboration between the therapist and patient. This doesn’t work for everyone, but is a good start. 

Due to the kind of burden a lot of students feel by starting college, it is important that those vulnerable students with mental health issues have the tools and resources they need to cope with stress, anxiety, depression or other psychological issues.

The treatment program, as well as the online screening, is considered as the first campus-wide screening program for mental health conducted at any university. By catching depression in the early ages, officials of UCLA hope to significantly reduce the damage that the illness does in the early-adult years.

Garen Staglin, the co-chair of the leadership council of the Depression Grand Challenge, hopes that the efforts made by UCLA encourage other institutions and businesses to also focus on mental health issues.

The efforts made by UCLA in Los Angeles, USA have not been futile; Larry Moneta, the vice president of the student affairs at Duke University is quite interested in how UCLA will help its students.

I’m incredibly glad about UCLA’s mental health screening initiative. Mental health issues need to be destigmatized, especially in academic settings so students can comfortably seek the help they’re in need of. I hope other’s implement such programs too,” said Katherine Bracken (English and Theatre student at The Ohio State University)

 

Sources:

http://time.com/4473575/college-mental-health-guidebook/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/the-college-student-mental-health-crisis

https://hpi.georgetown.edu/agingsociety/pubhtml/mentalhealth/mentalhealth.html

http://www.apa.org/about/gr/education/news/2011/college-campuses.aspx

https://www.bustle.com/p/ucla-will-offer-free-mental-health-checks-to-students-heres-why-its-so-necessary-2360904

https://www.thefix.com/all-incoming-ucla-students-receive-vital-mental-health-assist

http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-to-offer-free-mental-health-screening-treatment-to-all-incoming-students

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Arslan Butt currently works for https://www.CanadianPharmacyWorld.com, has a passion for keeping up-to-date regarding the latest health and lifestyle trends. He likes going on long walks, trying out new healthy eating regimes, and working out.

Achieving positive change in Mental Health: Guest post by Tony Weekes of Unity MHS

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My name is Tony Weekes. I feel honoured to have been invited to post on Be Ur Own Light. I have witnessed at first-hand the mental suffering of close family members. In trying to ease their suffering, I have tried, sometimes succeeded, other times failed, to surmount the problems – which they have faced – caused by the current care system’s serious lack of funding and the resulting lack of cohesion.

I am not a professional in the field of mental health but I could not sit back and do nothing. So, I founded Unity MHS, a grassroots movement to revolutionise mental health care in the United Kingdom through education, recognition and intervention.

As a not-for-profit Company limited by guarantee (not a charity), Unity has no shareholders. Therefore, our driving force is the commitment we maintain on our mission rather than personal or financial gain. Our mission is two-fold:

  • To challenge the way society views mental health.
  • To facilitate vast improvement in access to ongoing care and socio-economic empowerment for those suffering with any kind of mental ill health.

I strongly believe that when mental health is viewed with the same level of importance as physical health, the funding necessary for the care system to operate as one unified force will be made available in an instant. Additionally, considering the component parts of the current system, I believe that most of the logistics required for UK mental health care to shine already exist. It is the consistent lack of investment which has allowed the system to show great strain under the pressure it faces.

The general-public are only now becoming aware of the possible mental health crisis we face as a country, or even as a planet. The conversations are becoming increasingly more open. However, it is only a widespread shift in public opinion, which will give the greatest burden of illness in the UK the priority status and corresponding national investment it desperately needs.

Hence, I set-off on my mission by writing In my right mind – a book which seeks to tackle this crisis from angles which may never have been considered in the public domain – to instigate that shift in the public’s perception of mental health.

Moving onto the second part of our mission, we aim to facilitate improvements through ongoing education, recognition and intervention in mental health. How can this be achieved?

Education:

There are two social entities which represent what should be the front line on a proactive approach to mental health. These are our schools and our families. The teachers at the school which my children attend actively promote working in educational partnership with parents. We believe this should and will also be the case with their mental well-being. Schools and parents will be given the tools they need to build resilience and notice signs of mental distress in youngsters at home and in the classroom. This will also give us all the knowledge to observe and act accordingly in the case of adolescents or even adults showing the signs of mental illness.

At Unity, we have developed a program with this aim and are in talks with a number of schools about implementation.

 

Recognition:

The earlier that the possibility of any form of illness is recognised, the sooner it can be diagnosed and the more effectively it can be treated before it gets more serious. The importance of early-  recognition for the whole system, cannot be over-estimated. Once we have the knowledge required to notice what may be the early signs in any setting, with a good treatment plan in place then arguably any form of mental illness can be managed over time with persistence.

 

Intervention:

In many instances, in-patient care will be necessary. Arguably, this is the area where the current system is showing the greatest signs of strain as there are simply not enough beds available. This results in patients sometimes being discharged before they have received the level of care needed or in other instances, people being admitted for care hundreds of miles from home, away from their all-important support network.

For any form of serious illness, varying degrees of rehabilitation are needed to ensure that recovery from the illness can be sustained once a patient is discharged. Our greatest challenge is to generate all the resources necessary for these beds and the other resources necessary, to be made available sustainably. With the right treatment, for the right amount of time, followed by ongoing care and support in the community, social and economic empowerment would make positive long-term recovery more likely and hopefully minimise the risk of relapse.

The NHS is a world leader, Unity will also make mental health care here world renowned.

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Tony Weekes is a mental health activist and founder of grassroots movement Unity MHS and author of the book, ‘In My Right Mind’. He campaigns for better mental health and can be found at www.unity-mhs.org  and his book at www.unity-mhs.org/book. Tony can be contacted at progress@unity-mhs.org

Looking after Mental Health as a Student and Beyond: for World Union of Jewish Students on World Mental Health Day

This blog is one of a series of blogs that Eleanor, founder of Be Ur Own Light, wrote for the World Union of Jewish Students- www.wujs.org.il/blogs . It was prepared for World Mental Health Day written by young Jews about their experiences dealing with mental health.

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In 2007, when I was 19,  I started my BA (Hons) in Drama and English Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. Goldsmiths is a quirky, art school with an area of excellence in the arts. It was the perfect place for me to study, despite the distance to South London!

Having grown up and gone to primary and secondary school in Bushey, Hertfordshire in a close knit Jewish community, leaving my comfort zone behind was both nerve wracking but exciting. I was thrilled to be studying what I loved and being on a new journey. In my first year, I lived in halls and made lots of new friends .

However, it had only been 3 years since I had been diagnosed (at the age of 16) with bipolar disorder. Bipolar is a serious mood disorder where you can get low, depressive moods and at the other end of the spectrum- high, manic moods. Bipolar can be medicated with mood stabilisers and anti depressants, and I was very good at keeping to my medicine regime and of course avoiding alcohol, not so easy in a student environment!

Throughout my 3 years at Uni, although my Bipolar symptoms were largely kept at bay, I did suffer from social anxiety which impacted slightly on my Drama degree. Anxiety is something that I have lived with for a long time. When you are diagnosed with a mental illness as a teenager, you don’t want to be different. As I had been in hospital as a teen due to a bipolar episode and had to go down a year at school to catch up, getting to university was a victory for me. In fact, just three years before I began my degree, doctors had told my parents that due to the severity of my illness, I may not make it to university. I was so pleased to prove them wrong!

Yet, I did still feel different and although I loved my course, I did have times when my anxiety impacted. Studying Drama was (and is) a love and passion of mine. I loved creating characters, learning acting theories and forming performances with my fellow drama students. However, when I was feeling at my worst throughout my 3 years at Uni, there were times when I felt I couldn’t perform on stage.

In those times, my university tutors were hugely supportive and I disclosed to them that I was struggling with my anxiety disorder. I only ever had positive support and was set an alternative writing assignment instead, which meant I could still get my degree.

My advice if you are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions at university is to do the following:

  1. Disclose your condition to your tutors (and particularly a supportive form tutor) if your illness is impacting on your work. It is not weakness to disclose, rather if you do, then the University can help. University has a duty of care to you to make sure you are safe and well. Once disclosing, you will often find that you will be highly supported by staff. Sometimes too, the University pastoral department can get involved to help you and refer you to counselling If needed. You are not alone.
  2. Be honest and kind to yourself. If you are living away from home, there is temptation not to tell your family or friends what is going on. You may think that you will be worrying them but actually having a strong support network really helps, so speak to those who are supportive and get some advice as to what you should do.
  3. If you are really struggling and cannot continue on the course, speak to University about it and see if you can defer a year. Also, make sure you make a GP appointment to discuss what is going on with your mental health- or if you are under a psychiatrist- go and see them.
  4. Try not to isolate yourself. At uni, I found strength from joining Goldsmiths Jewish society and later becoming President of it, working with local Rabbis and meeting Jewish students from all over the world. Its important if you can and are feeling well enough, to make new friends and try out new clubs in the Student Union. In London, we have UJS- Union of Jewish students, which I found really helpful to join. In my third year, I was on the events committee and organised a bar night, Booze 4 Jews London. Having those connections was really helpful to me and I enjoyed my time at university even more.
  5. Remember there will be times when Uni can be challenging. Whether its being away from home, meeting new people, having difficult assignments and lots of independent work, writing a long dissertation… know you can and will get through it but make sure you have the right support in place.
  6. If you are really struggling ie feeling very depressed, suicidal or want to harm yourself- please do share this with your doctor, family or someone you trust, so you can get the right support. You can also call Samaritans and various helplines.  It may help you to take time out of university to get well.

In my experience, my universities (after Goldsmiths, I did a year at Royal Central drama school) really supported me with my anxiety and mental health. Remember to speak out, get help and support and know you can still get your degree despite your health challenges – you are not alone.

Eleanor Segall is a mental health writer, blogger and advocate. She went to Goldsmiths University from 2007-10 and did her masters at the Royal Central School from 2011-12. She lives and works in London, England.

http://www.wujs.org.il/blogs/looking-after-mental-health-as-a-student-and-beyond-eleanor-segall

How I’ve Learnt to Fight my Health Anxiety: Guest Post by Ellie Miles

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(image: Natalie Dee)

Imagine the scene: you’ve woken up with a banging headache, a sick feeling in your stomach, and a fever. You take a paracetamol and return to bed with a strong cup of tea, and decide to make the classic mistake of Googling your symptoms. You know you shouldn’t do it, you know that an Internet search engine can’t give you an accurate diagnosis, but it’s just so easy and tempting! You put your symptoms into an online checker, and read through the dozens of conditions that could be causing them. It could be a cold, a stomach bug, some kind of virus, or… malaria?! Brain cancer?! That’s it. This is the end. You’ve somehow contracted a rare but swiftly fatal disease, and should begin saying your goodbyes. It must be true: the Internet said so!

At this point, a neurotypical person would probably question the logic of the I’m-going-to-die thought train They’d dismiss the fear, accept that they’ve probably just got a cold, and move on with their day. However, when you have health anxiety, it’s not that simple. The kind of panicked thoughts outlined above refuse to budge, and obsessive worry can take over your mind for hours on end.

I’ve suffered from health anxiety for as long as I can remember, relating to both myself and others. For me, symptoms of illness can’t possibly be the result of a mild ailment: they must signal cancer, or sepsis, or some other severe and life-threatening condition. The same goes for the people I love. I’ve spent nights sobbing because I’m convinced that my nearest and dearest are facing imminent death. Just last week, I was hit by a crippling fear that my boyfriend had a brain tumour because he’d been suffering from sickness and a headache for four days. This morning, I decided that my cat was clearly on the brink of death because she didn’t use her litter tray overnight. Looking back, these thoughts seem ridiculous. At the time, however, they were gripping and all-consuming.

While health anxiety still hits me pretty much any time I or my loved ones fall ill, I’ve got a lot better at dealing with it over the years. What used to be days of endless worry has been reduced to maybe a couple of hours of panic that I can eventually fight off. I’ve learned techniques that tame this distressing and frankly irritating beast. The first of these is avoiding the previously aforementioned trap of Googling my symptoms. Nothing good is EVER going to come of it, because the Internet is utterly obsessed with convincing everyone they’ve got cancer. Why would I put myself at risk of seeing this when it’s only going to increase my anxiety ten-fold? It can be pretty hard to resist the temptation to hit the search engines, especially when I’m feeling really rotten, but it’s for the best.

Secondly, I’ve come up with certain rules for myself when I feel ill to stop me from freaking out and needlessly heading to the GP. If my symptoms are minor, I only go to the doctor if they persist for a few days or start to worsen. If I feel myself starting to panic, I seek the opinion of someone rational, who usually confirms that whatever I’m suffering from probably won’t kill me. If I am genuinely poorly, I of course go to the doctor and get any medication that I need. However, I try not to pander to my anxiety by telling my GP about every little twinge or sniffle I experience. It only wastes their time, and it’s a temporary fix that only serves to reinforce rather than break my vicious cycle of panic. It’s important for me to address the source of the anxiety, rather than use my doctor as a mental and emotional crutch.

Finally, I try to remind myself that I can’t control the health or the actions of other people. When I get health anxiety about the people I love, my first instinct is to frogmarch them immediately to a doctor, whether they want to go or not. However, I’m trying to teach myself that I have to leave others to make their own choices regarding their health. Freaking them out by telling them I think they have a tumour isn’t exactly going to help them to feel better- in fact, it’s probably going to have the opposite effect. While acknowledging a lack of control seems terrifying to my anxious brain, it’s necessary. While I would love to be able to constantly protect everyone I care about, I can’t. Trying to do so is only going to leave me- and others- stressed out. Relinquishing that responsibility can actually be quite liberating! I’m not saying I don’t acknowledge when my loved ones are ill: I just try to give them the support they want, and not the smothering attention that my anxiety demands.

I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be free of my health anxiety. I think the only thing that could completely cure it would be my loved ones and I never getting sick again, which isn’t very likely! However, I’ve managed to minimise its impact on my life by challenging my anxious thoughts and stopping them from controlling my actions. I’m sure my poor, long-suffering doctor will be thrilled!

 

Author bio

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Ellie Miles is a freelance mental health writer and blogger based in the United Kingdom. When she isn’t writing about her experiences with depression and anxiety, she’s probably playing with her cat. You can find more of Ellie’s work at www.elliemileswrites.com, or follow her on Twitter (@elmiles_) for life updates and copious cat photos.