Mark Fleming: Losing social stigma is first step to good mental health

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After battling bipolar disorder and the public perception that comes with it, author Mark Fleming discusses what it’s like to live with mental illness

Imagine shouting “mental!” in a Scottish accent and what are the connotations? Exuberance? Bravado?

When you append “illness” however, everything changes. Mental illness conjures stereotypes. I can gauge society’s ambiguous attitudes to it because I fall into this statistic: the “one in four” Scots with direct mental illness experience.

I was 25 when I suffered a mental breakdown. Of course, breakdown implies a sudden derailing. But mental illness – in my case, bipolar – can be a slow-burner.

It was 1987. After obtaining a Publishing Degree from Napier University I was working for a temp agency. The south had voted-in Margaret Thatcher for an unprecedented third term and she was busy privatising everything that moved. The agency I worked for was contracted to various banks dealing with the floods of share applications. Overtime was compulsory. This meant long hours, seven days, but fat pay cheques. After working hard we partied harder.

Outwardly I was just another 20-something office drone, living for extended weekends. But my reality was unhinging. I began having panic attacks. No matter how exhausted or hungover I was, I couldn’t sleep, for days, into weeks.

Eventually I was signed off work with “stress”. Becoming a recluse, I refused to speak to friends on the phone. The severe insomnia was stoking my delusions. I became convinced my blood was infected and the antidepressants I’d been prescribed were a slow-release poison.

On Friday, November 13, I completely flipped. I imagined my bedroom walls were closing in on me. The only way to counter this was to knock myself out by taking diving headers – at my posters! My dad fought to pin me to the floor while my mum dialled 999. An ambulance arrived with a police escort. I was taken to a locked ward at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. When whatever industrial-strength tranquillisers I’d been given wore off, I was formally sectioned.

A combination of medication, relaxation and regular family visits began restoring calm. Another patient lent me his cassette player. I discovered music again. I became a regular visitor to Morningside coffee shops and the library.

I received my first 48-hour pass on Christmas Eve 1987. A month later I was discharged.

Although I struggled to find regular work until 1989 I was no longer clinically depressed. Until 1990. I’d moved away from home by now, was a single guy into Lothian Road binge drinking. Although euphoria was a positive emotion, I couldn’t switch off. Previously shy, I’d changed into an evangelical bore, spouting nonsense at anyone who’d listen. Recognising I was ill again, my parents ensured I was sectioned. My recovery after a second stint in the Royal Ed was a bit easier.

It has been cathartic to write about my mental health. Despite the bipolar episodes I’ve loved writing all my adult life. Prior to my illness I’d had several stories published, and although I stopped writing as I slid into depression, the recovery process was inspirational. I kept a scribbled diary during my period as a psychiatric patient. Much later, I began threading stories together. Using fiction to fill the many blanks left in my confused, medicated mind, the diary evolved into a novel, BrainBomb, published by Chipmunka Publishing in 2009. A short story collection, Bedlam, followed, partly inspired by characters I encountered in hospital.

I could never have written BrainBomb in 1987. I was more concerned with finding a job and kept quiet about locked wards. But I was inspired to embrace my past after watching a Stephen Fry documentary that tackled bipolar head-on.

Have I ever felt stigmatised? I caught some TV stand-up comedian the other week. He was enthusing about getting to know a girl he’d overheard was “bi”. It turned out she was actually bipolar, which he illustrated by tapping his temple. That small hand gesture spoke volumes.

A more potent example occurred when I recently applied for life insurance. The broker asked if I’d ever suffered mental illness. I answered “yes”. He informed me this would mean my premiums would be loaded by 80 per cent. When I replied this seemed like institutionalised prejudice and I’d shop around for my policy, he replied it was standard throughout the industry.

But for all the negatives there are always positives.

If TV soaps feature mental ill health, they’re careful to append helpline numbers or appropriate web addresses – these lifelines were non-existent in 1987.

Mental health should be discussed as openly as diabetes or cancer or any one of the thousands of factors that make us human.

* Mark Fleming is the author of BrainBomb and Bedlam. Both titles are available from {http:// www.chipmunkapublishing.co.uk|www.chipmunkapublishing.co.uk}

HIGHS AND LOWS

A PERSON with bipolar disorder, or manic depression, can experience severe bouts of feeling extremely low to becoming very high, excited and elated within a short space of time.

The symptoms can alternate between the two extremes and this can be very frightening and distressing for the individual concerned.

It is difficult to determine the cause of bipolar disorder, but some evidence suggests that a genetic link may exist. As yet, there has been no conclusion as to which genes might be responsible.

Manic episodes can lead people to have racing thoughts, but they may also experience a lack of concentration and find it difficult to sleep. This can swing rapidly to an episode where the person can be very down and disinterested in what is going on around them.

They can feel tired all the time, have little or no appetite, and experience insomnia or oversleeping.

Treatment for bipolar disorder commonly includes medication such as mood stabilisers like Lithium or antidepressants, and a range of talking therapies.

Techniques that help people monitor their moods and recognise triggers for highs and lows have also proven to help some people.

For help or more details on bipolar or any other mental illness, log on to {http:// www.samh.org.uk|www.samh.org.uk}