So today marks World Bipolar Day and generally speaking, people with Bipolar Disorder continue to experience stigma, discrimination and misunderstanding. Today Professor Phil Mitchell, Head of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, spoke in defence of sufferers such as myself, noting that Bipolar should be treated no differently than other illnesses such as diabetes or cancer. He goes on to note that people with lived experience of Bipolar don’t intend to make life difficult for either themselves or others and that as a mood disorder much of the associated symptoms are like other diseases.
I feel that this article is well timed and for a change, I feel as though I have a psychiatrist batting in my corner, it hasn’t always been like that. When I first visited a psychiatrist (at the recommendation of my psychologist), I was as yet undiagnosed and obviously un-medicated. I spoke to this psychiatrist the same way in which I spoke to most people, you see at the time I identified as a medium and psychic. As we sat down I spoke to him of his dead Aunt, who I believed was standing next to him and giving me messages to relay. Needless to say by the time our session was complete I had a script for anti-psychotics and mood stabilisers. I went back to my psychologist and he recommended I seek another opinion, just to be sure.
I sought out another psychiatrist, this time a female and from a different cultural background. This was important to me, since I felt perhaps her diverse cultural experience may impact on the outcome of my diagnosis, or at least on the medication regime prescribed. I wasn’t disappointed. I still came out with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, although this time it was Type II, not Type I. She also felt we should begin with mood stabilisers only. Her words had a huge impact on me, since both in and out of hospital, my experience with Psychiatrists left a lot to be desired. She mentioned that I was reporting spiritual phenomena and that (in her opinion) there were things that psychiatry couldn’t explain. She challenged the status quo by asking who she was to contest my perceptions that I was indeed a physic and a medium. She shared with me some of the cultural singularities that still takes place in her home country, all of which involved shamanic practices and fortune telling. That was a number of years ago and I have remained relatively well on the mood stabilisers and have had no need for anti-psychotics (although I still hear voices and see things that may not be there).
I manage to raise my children well, hold down a part time job and continue studying at university. I recognise that people see me as eccentric or some such thing and I have had it reported to me that I’m (apparently) quite unusual in my approach to life and to my role as a manager.
The article goes on to talk about the way in which people with Bipolar Disorder need support around them, similar to the other illnesses mentioned, helpful partners, doctors and friends/colleagues all go to make our journey more bearable. This takes me to a time when I was supporting my mother through cancer. She had days where she was so unwell (physically and mentally), so exhausted and so run-down that she couldn’t get out of bed, while other days she was able to go about functioning relatively normally. I resigned from a job to take care of her almost full-time. I would take her to appointments, make her meals, sit with her and keep her company. She came through in the end and is in full remission.
When I ‘came out’ to my parents about my diagnosis of Bipolar the look of horror and confusion said it all. My father explicitly asked whether I was like ‘them’ (meaning the service users I had worked with in my mental health role). Although I left literature around for my parents, my illness remains a taboo topic and one, which they avoid at all costs. I could take up the baton and really ‘get to the bottom of it’ with them, although I feel this is more effort than it is worth. I have enough friends and supports around me to not need to go into battle with them in relation to their own stigma. This is how I feel about my illness, battling ignorance, misinformation and stigma are constants in my life and in order to not become completely worn down, I need to choose my battles carefully.
Currently I work proudly with a mental health organisation that educates the police/services, community, schools and clinicians to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental illness. I’ve had a great number of conversations with federal and state police and mental health clinicians who are engaged and enthused to address the matter of mental health stigma. Coming across this article today was a reminder that not all are against ‘us’ and that reducing stigma by people both with and without lived experience is the best way to go. When a Psychiatrist can speak so boldly about such matters, I know that, while we have some way to go, things are changing for the better.
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