As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end, with this year’s theme focussing on ‘Surviving or Thriving’, Daniel J. McLaughlin examines the language of mental health, and his own experiences with bipolar disorder.
I will probably spend more time searching for an image to accompany this piece than the actual time it takes to write it.
A picture supposedly represents a thousands words, and a thousand words barely scratches the surface on this subject. The cliche is to use a photograph of a silhouetted man with his head in his hands. In my professional life, as a journalist for Perspecs News (#3sides #shamelessplug), I have resorted to using this image to capture the complex and sensitive topic of mental health. I have never felt entirely happy by relenting and choosing the image, but a fast approaching deadline is a scary enough incentive.
Time to Change advises journalists and publications to use alternative images to depict mental health. The mental health organisation, whose aim is to end mental health discrimination, argues that images used in stories can be “just as damaging as the words or the headlines”. As part of their ‘Get the Picture’ campaign, they offer a few of their own stock photographs. However, I find they are not particularly successful, either. Some involve a model staring enigmatically out of a window, as though they were appearing in a 1990s television series.
Mental health cannot be portrayed in a single picture. If they were offered an infinite canvas, artists with flair and creativity to rival Van Gogh would struggle. Mental health is like a Michael Bay movie: there are too many, and no-one really asked for them in the first place.
Depression is a smorgasbord of bipolar, severe, seasonal affective, post-natal, et al. Bipolar has more spinoffs than CSI: I, II, cyclothymia.
It has been described as many things: Winston Churchill called his depression the “black dog”, while Stephen Fry likens it to the weather.
Perhaps a word cannot encompass the spectrum of mental illness; maybe a punctuation mark is more suitable? Yes, you have just seen it there: the question mark. Or even, my favourite punctuation mark, after discovering its name on QI, the interrobang (?!).
I spend a lot of time thinking about mental health. I am quite open about my condition, and I have put pen to paper (and digit to keyboard) on a number of occasions.
READ: I am depressed…
After finding out that my low moods were not the result of attending a Catholic school or supporting Blackburn Rovers, I was diagnosed with depression – and given happy pills to exorcise the demons. A little while later, when the pills were ineffective, I found that depression came in many flavours; and at the age of 18, my flavour was given a name: bipolar disorder, or manic depression (bipolar being the Starburst to manic’s Opal Fruits). I was later told that my manic depression was cyclothymia, which the Americans call (of course they would) ‘diet bipolar’.
When my condition comes up in conversation – you needn’t worry, my small talk does not consist of “Good evening, my name is Dan and I am a certified nutter” – with lexis aplenty in my arsenal, I struggle to choose the appropriate verb. I do not, even thought it can be particularly unpleasant, feel that I “suffer” from bipolar; nor do I remark that I “have” bipolar, as though it is a possession or an accessory. Instead, I have opted for “I am bipolar/I am a manic depressive”. In the same way I am undoubtedly white (possibly pale blue), right-handed, a Hobbit, and – sobs – have a receding hairline, my manic depression is very much a matter of fact.
By owning my condition, I am admitting to its chronic nature. It is not a fashionable illness for one to “man up” to, contrary to the unwise words (none more so than usual) of Piers Morgan. It is as chronic as diabetes and asthma; and you would not tell someone with low blood sugar to get over it, or a choking asthmatic that “everyone gets out of breath, at times”.
The next point may make you shift uncomfortably in your seat (presuming you are sat down), and will no doubt cause a concerned phone call from a worrying mother: bipolar disorder, and other depressions, can be a terminal illness.
Suicidal thoughts, and tragically actions, are a symptom of the condition. It is a bigger killer than cancer and heart disease for men; it is a silent epidemic that takes so many lives, but its lethality is not respected.
I treat my manic depression the same way the late, great and sorely missed Christopher Hitchens (what on Earth would he think of President Trump?) calmly and maturely observed about his cancer: in all likelihood, it will not be the tumour that will kill him; he died of complications from cancer, rather than the cancer itself.
If, heaven forbid, my life is claimed, I will not die from manic depression, but complications from it. That may be suicide; that may be addiction; or it may be from old age; or getting hit by a bus. I am rather hoping that life gets to me before bipolar disorder does.
A final note on suicide (no pun intended, even with my gallows humour): when I and many others plummet to the depths of these dark thoughts, we are not obsessing over whether or not we want to die. Sometimes, we simply do not want to live. In the depths, I look forward to sleep and when I awaken, I greet the morning with a resigned, “Oh, you again.”
By offering a frank account of the ups, downs, and inbetweens of bipolar disorder, I understand that I run the risk of looking as miserable as Morrissey. As a journalist, my news head dictates and we do tend to have Spidey senses for the macabre. The dark experiences are more interesting than the stable Dan, eating Pringles and watching Netflix. As much as I am a narcissist, I do not think for one minute that you will be enthralled by my adventures to the local shop, or by my enjoyment of Paul Jones, Clare Teal and Jools Holland on BBC Radio 2.
And when I am manic, well, I am far too busy thinking that I am the next step of human evolution, kissing all the wrong girls, and singing to myself (and other unfortunate souls) on a motorway bridge.
I agree with the former England cricketer, Andrew Flintoff, that we should not refer to mental health as a “stigma”. While he chose “struggle” to describe it, and as I have previously voiced my opposition to those type of words, there needs to be a word that reflects the sheer bravery and determination of my fellow nutters.
I have been heartened by many of my friends coming out of the mental health closet and openly discussing their illness. It takes a helluva lot of balls to be honest, especially in front of family and friends. Thank you, and KBO (keep buggering on).
We are not strugglers, we are not sufferers – we are champions. No need to burst out into song, I’ve got that covered when Mr Manic calls.
A commonly used statistic often quoted in awareness weeks such as this is: one in four people have a mental health problem. While I appreciate it is there to tell people they are not alone, I feel it takes away the dogginess and individuality of the fighters. We challenge the mundanities of everyday life – the rent, the mortgage, the 9-to-5 – as well as duelling with something that is not at all mundane: our conditions. One in four, of course, fight, but every unique person is special and significant.
Our dearly departed hero, in both the Star Wars movies and the mental health fight, Carrie Fisher wrote in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking:
“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.
“In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside).
“At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”
I have just come up with an image for this article: a bruised and battered soldier ready to take on yet another charging army. The soldier has a wry smile. Trying to find a copyright free image of this will be a bit of a bugger, and I possess no artistic talent.
Mental health is a gladiator battle, and whatever we face in the arena – we are the champions.