The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.
For many people, including myself, the above statement is not part of reality. As an adult I have always fallen short of that statement, never quite managed to get the whole act together. People who do not suffer from poor mental health often do not understand that or what mental illness is or how the same illness can differ between people and how some illnesses have different “levels”.
Depression, either with or without anxiety, is suffered by around 10% of the population and women are reported as suffering from it more than men. One in twenty (5%) will suffer from major depression which is sometimes called clinical depression. Just over 1% of people will suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a similar amount of people with have an Eating Disorder. About 2.5% of people will have a phobia of some kind. Personality Disorders are hard to get figures for because diagnosis is difficult but a figure of 9% is not unrealistic. People with Bipolar Disorder are about 1% of the population and Schizophrenia is diagnosed in less than 1% of the population. If you look at the figures you see that, generally, the more severe the illness the fewer people suffer from it.
Most people who experience a mental illness will recover within 18 months and never become ill again. These tend to be the people with low-level anxiety and low to medium depression.
I am badly limited by bipolar disorder as to what I can or can’t do. I experience a type of rapid cycling that isn’t seen very often and is known as ultradian. It means that when I go through an episode of rapid cycling I can experience between four and twelve cycles in a day and many will be sudden and violent. The episodes can last a few days. I also suffer from sudden violent downswings that are brought on by stress. In a matter of a few minutes I can go from reasonably content to tearful then depressed and then suicidal. This sort of episode is over in 1 – 2 hours and if that sounds like a rapid episode then, believe me, it is not rapid enough.
I can’t look after myself properly; nothing ever seems to get fully completed when I do housework so my home looks in a permanent state of abandonment. If I cook a meal then I don’t get to wash clothes and often don’t get to do the washing up after preparing a meal either. On a good day I’ll get one thing done but good days are few and far between. When I am very ill (which is often) my personal hygiene can also suffer. Thankfully I manage to look after that part of myself more often than not.
I am considered to be high functioning and high intellectualizing which means that I can cope with the seriousness of my illness. My consultant psychiatrist can talk to me openly about treatment and I have more of a say over medication and treatment than those who can’t get to grips with their illness. It makes me more open to new ideas and, thanks to a friend, I’ve learned several new ways to deal with how I feel when I’m faced with moment to moment changes. One of the ways I’ve learned to cope is that when things are in the extreme I text or email this friend and talk myself through the episode by leaving voice mail messages. It helps stave off suicide and helps me hold on to reality.
I self-harm, which, strangely enough, is a vital tool. For me it’s about a release of tension. If you burst a balloon it goes off with a big bang and tears apart. Self-harm for me is about placing a piece of sticky tape on a balloon and piercing the balloon through that and then it deflates softly and gently without a lot of damage.
I take medication, lots of medication. Like a lot of other people with mental health problems I stop taking my medication from time to time. Sometimes it’s because I’m well and I really feel that I don’t need it so much but mostly it’s because I get fed up of taking it. Two or three times a year and take four or five days off from it. They’re my little holidays and I can recognize when I’m skating on thin ice and start taking it again. It’s a symptom of my illness; a product of my disappointment at myself that I have to rely on them and I still don’t feel halfway normal. It’s two fingers up at an illness that has stopped me being the high-flyer that I once was. I used to change things, I was a catalyst for good and now I find it hard to be good at doing anything.
Poor mental health is not a uniform experience. Few people will ever find out for themselves about how the illness I have affects me. It is beyond the experience of most people including those who do experience mental illness in their lifetimes. It is that lack of experience, the lack of understanding of how mental illness affects others, how it’s a different experience for each illness that can give rise to discrimination. Education will assist in diminishing that discrimination but it will never end it. Happy ever after only happens in fairy tales.