News from Befrienders Dublin
I have experienced a mental illness. It’s not something to boast about. It’s not something to wear like a badge of honour. But it’s certainly NOT something to be ashamed of. Even in these allegedly enlightened times, mental illness carries a stigma. Too often it’s regarded as a character defect, a weakness to be despised. Or the person is written off as a hopeless case, incapable of coherent thought or of leading a normal, useful life.
Well, forget the stereotypical picture of a dribbling idiot who should be banged up in a rubber-walled room in some dark, Victorian institution. I was a 50-year-old national newspaper journalist with more than 30 years’ experience, happily married with three healthy grown-up children and living in a very comfortable home in a West of Scotland seaside town when I became mentally ill. That’s not the typical profile of someone who experiences mental illness – because there is no typical profile. The simple fact is that mental illness can visit anyone. Government figures show that one in four people will experience mental illness at some time in their lives.
Who knows where, who knows when? And above all, who knows WHO? The first time I visited a psychiatrist, I told her: ‘I never thought of myself as the type of person this would happen to.’ She replied: ‘And what sort of person do you think it should happen to?’ My face was shut.
My problem was a depressive illness – I shan’t go into the causes. I visited all the dark places that most people don’t even realise exist. I contemplated suicide. But with the love and support of my family and close friends I survived and grew stronger. The proper medication and psychiatric and psychological treatment were vital for the next stage – the long climb back to feeling good again. The hardest thing was admitting to myself that I had a mental illness.
Telling others was out of the question. It was all about stigma – what other people would think of me. I suppose I was a victim of my own prejudice. Until that point, I had probably been as liable as anyone to pigeonhole and stereotype people as loonies or wimps who probably shouldn’t be in the job in the first place. So I lied. People I met while out walking found it odd that I wasn’t at work. Was I alright? Of course, I just had a few days off. But as time wore on, the lie became unsustainable. So I withdrew. I didn’t want to meet people. I didn’t want to have to admit I was ill. Mentally.
Prejudice is born of ignorance or fear of something we don’t understand. I doubt if anyone who hasn’t experienced mental illness can really understand it. The causes are many and varied. We all have our triggers which, when pulled hard enough or often enough, can cause mental devastation.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, GPs, nurses, social workers, counsellors and medication all have vital roles to play in helping those who experience mental illness to recover. But every one of us can make a contribution. The only qualifications required are concern, humanity and compassion. Do not judge others.
Don’t write off colleagues as lost causes just because they are going through a bad patch that you can’t understand. Offer support. A few kind words can be really helpful. I’m lucky. My friends and colleagues and the National Union of Journalists were wonderfully supportive throughout my 15-month ordeal. I no longer feel stigmatised.
Will you be as lucky? I just pray you don’t have to learn the lesson the hard way
Extract from the NUJ Mental health & suicide reporting guidelines available to download here.
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