Eleanor Segall

London, UK

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Raising our Voices: Stigma and Bipolar Disorder



I am very excited to be writing my first article for Equilibrium. In this article I will discuss stigma and life with bipolar.

I have lived with bipolar disorder for thirteen years, having been diagnosed at just sixteen years old. The illness runs in my family, but it was still a shock when I found myself unwell in hospital as a teenager. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, which means moods can oscillate between depressive lows and manic highs that can be treated with medication and therapies. When depressed, one might find oneself feeling extremely negative and unable to do activities previously enjoyed or, in bad cases, suicidal and unable to cope with life. When in a manic state, one may be in a heightened hyperactive state, talking fast/not making sense and unable to sit still. A person may act in ways they would not usually behave when in a typical state. This can then spill over into psychosis, with delusions and a loss of touch with reality, which can eventually lead to hospitalisation in severe cases.

There is currently no cure for the disorder; however, mood stabilising medications such as Lithium, prescribed by a psychiatrist, and courses of therapy can very much help. It is believed that bipolar may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but there is still so much we do not know. It is for this reason that stigma about the disorder and other mental health conditions, pervades across the world.

So, what is stigma? Stigma can be defined by the Oxford dictionary as a ‘mark of disgrace associated with a circumstance, quality or person’.  In terms of mental illness, people fear what they have not experienced, do not know and do not understand. It is the fear and ignorance that then perpetuates myths about those who struggle with their mental health.

Due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of mental illness, in our case, bipolar disorder, fear and stigma are most definitely generated. When people haven’t been through the suicidal, heart-wrenching lows, and the sometimes equally terrible highs, they will comment that the person is ‘attention-seeking’ and just doing it to get a reaction from other people. We have seen this recently when depressed celebrities, for example singer Sinéad O’Connor (who has bipolar), open up to the world about their demons. They get criticised, shot down, told they are being drama queens, silenced, as if their problems are trivial. There is nothing trivial about serious mental illness or how the brain can trick you into feeling. There is nothing trivial about feeling so unwell you can’t get out of bed, wash, live. There is nothing trivial about experiencing suicidal tendencies and not having support, because support networks are the one thing that keep bipolar sufferers, and those with other conditions, going. Without my support network, I know I would find things so much harder.

So, how do we tackle this stigma?  In one word: talking. Telling people about our experiences. Sharing the world of people who have mental health issues and reflecting it back to wider society, through explaining to non sufferers what its like to live with a mental health condition. It Is so important to show wider society the world inhabited by people with mental health conditions. Everyone is different. Its vital to  explain the unexplainable. Talking about our symptoms but showing how we can reach recovery or what recovery means to us.

I began speaking about my experiences online via my WordPress blog ‘Be Ur Own Light’ (www.beurownlight.com) about a year and a half ago. The blog began as a diary, as I was navigating life with a difficult anxiety disorder which made it difficult for me to hold down a job long term. I still live with this anxiety and am learning how to manage it. When I first began writing, I did it secretly and only showed it to close family members and wrote under pseudonyms. I was effectively testing the waters to see the reaction. I was frightened I would get negative feedback.

 I began writing for charities such as Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Change and Bipolar UK, under pseudonyms, because I didn’t yet feel able to associate my name with the illness. I was scared, and I suppose was experiencing some self-stigma. In thirteen years I had never written about my illness or mental health online, though I had explained it to close friends. I remember the day when my first article for Rethink was published –‘Being Jewish and Bipolar’- and getting hundreds of likes, shares and positive comments. This built my confidence, and, over the course of a year, I wrote for more charities and even started writing for the Huffington Post Lifestyle blog and other websites/magazines under my real name.

A month or two ago, I decided to write all my mental health blogs under my real name. There is still so much work for us all to do to bring down the stigma, but it starts from raising our voices. We deserve to be heard and we need to talk in order to make mental health issues ‘normal’ in society and to fight for better treatment. One in four people suffer, although I would argue the figure is more like one in two. Together we can battle, speak out and one day beat the stigma.   

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