All of us at the focus group for the new Time to Change campaign thought that the idea of splitting the advert into two parts – one part with people hesitating to talk and the next part with people explaining why it’s good to start a conversation about mental health – was inspired. The advert, if you haven’t seen it yet, shows four people who initially struggle to talk to or about their daughter with bipolar disorder, their son with psychotic symptoms, their friend with bipolar disorder, and their partner with bipolar disorder.
During the focus group – attended by a guy with schizophrenia, a guy with depression, a lady with anxiety disorder, a lady with a personality disorder, me with bipolar disorder, and a couple of people whose chose not to disclose their mental health status – we asked if the people watching the advert would have to guess if the people speaking had mental illnesses or were supporters or were just your average joe public – before you looked at the backstory videos to find out. It was obviously decided to make them people with some experience of mental health via a loved one, although starting a conversation about mental health is difficult for everyone, either because of stigma, embarrassment, uncertainty, or simple ignorance.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder nearly five years ago, and took the decision to speak openly about it with family, friends, work colleagues, and every bugger that would let me. I chose not to be stigmatised by the mental illness, and even chose to publicly support the charity Bipolar UK through social media and a superhero costume fun-raiser entitle ‘The Bipolar Scavenger Hunt‘. I sent one hundred invitations and RSVPs to family and friends – and about 10 famous strangers including Stephen Fry, Robbie Williams, and Ruby Wax. Unfortunately I became ill around the same time and wasn’t able to start the event in London – but still raised some much needed funds.
My family and friends carried on treating my like normal after the initial diagnosis and, with medication and talking therapy, I was able to return to work and get my life back to nearly normal. I didn’t change my life-style and didn’t really look after myself properly – and two years later I had another major episode. The medication seemed to stop working and a change of doctor left me with very basic clinical support (turns out these new doctors doubted the diagnosis) and my life slowly unraveled – I lost my job, my home, my life, and I felt that I’d lost support from family and especially from friends.
My behaviour was irrational and irritable. I would burst into tears for no reason. I would avoid the phone and front door. I would stay in bed for weeks. I would call people to say that I hated them, then call them to say I loved them…… And then I would arrange a holiday, meet people for drinks, start new businesses, spend excessive amounts of money.
I seemed to target a handful of close friends in an almost self-destructive manner, and those friendships have suffered as a result. Some friends have ended the relationship, some have distanced themselves, and some have chosen to ignore it completed. All the behaviours are understandable, and I am guilty of them too, but none of them really help to maintain my mental wellness.
My sister was able to convince me to see an new doctor and together with professional help, new medication, and regular counselling, I am now in recovery. A large part of the recovery, I feel, is due to discussions about my mental illness with a select few friends and family. They have listened, tried to understand, and tried to ask how I am feeling on a regular basis – although I still find it difficult to talk about the darkest moments of my mental illness.
Talking about our problems, the things that we are struggling with, is difficult at the best of times but generally this is the best approach in life. Talking about mental health is no different, except maybe the responses are sometimes highly emotional and sometimes illogical. Talking to someone with a mental illness calmly and with compassion is always better than arguing or feeling pity – so chose the right moment and let the person with the mental illness feel comfortable and direct the conversation, where possible.
During the focus group process, I was able to pitch an idea. I thought that the characters from The Muppets and Sesame Street would make great advocates for talking about mental health – mainly because they cross the age barriers, bring comedy into the conversation, and because many share symptoms of mental illnesses. Have you ever considered that Count von Count or Oscar the Grouch have obsessive disorders? Or that Cookie Monster has an eating disorder? Or Animal has attention deficit disorder? Or that Big Bird shows signs of schizophrenia with his imaginary friend Mr Snuffleupagus? Of course, this is not real life and is generalising about mental illnesses, but it’s an interesting start to a conversation about mental health…….
“Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letters T and C and by the number 2 – it’s Time to Change, it’s Time to Talk”