Trustee Chair post: How to best ‘label’ Mental Ill-Health?

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Reading time: 4 minutes  –  Part of a series of blog posts by guest writers for the Jobs In Mind #VoiceYourStory awareness campaign. Writers include those with mental ill-health experience; their supporters; or perspectives in the workplace. 

How do we describe this condition that affects ONE in FOUR of the population?

“Mental health problems”, “mental health issues”, sometimes even “mental health illness” (I heard a doctor say this on the radio recently!)

Is there a touch of patronisation in the search for a polite way of describing “mental ill-health”? We are not so coy when saying someone has a heart condition or kidney disease.

I have “lived with” (that’s the current linguistic trend) a bipolar disorder since the age of 23. For the first 22 years it was undiagnosed. I experienced clear six monthly mood swings – six months high, six months low. Sometimes these coincided with summer/winter, so I was wheeled off for tests to see if it was seasonal depression, and given a full-spectrum light which I was supposed to stare at for two hours each night and morning. Well, I was a widow with two young children, so that wasn’t very practical.

I went to my GP regularly (over 14 years) to ask for help with the depressive phase. When I was finally diagnosed with bi-polar, and finally given a helpful medicine, he said “Oh I didn’t think you would have accepted such a diagnosis”. Considering the toll taken by family and friends, especially my children, from a rampant illness left undiagnosed, that was pretty shocking.

The diagnosis came in December 1994, when I had a total breakdown. I had been elected as a Camden councillor in May of that year. I was also working full-time, and the love of my life dumped me just before the election. To try and cope with these additional stresses, I agreed to try the antidepressant Paroxetine. It did not help, and in October I experienced a neural tremor which scared me, so I threw away the Paroxetine. Two mistakes – a) you are supposed to come off these SSRIs slowly, and b) for someone with bi-polar, coming off them can cause a huge high.

That is exactly what happened. My boss sacked me and I went completely manic. For 12 days I rampaged around, including at the Town Hall, where many of my councillor colleagues saw I was in a bad way, but did nothing. Eventually, my children had to get me sectioned. They were aged 14 and 19 at the time.

I was lucky enough to have brilliant help from a Professor Wakeling while I was in the Royal Free psychiatric ward, and for some months afterwards. He helped me come to terms with the condition I turned out to have, and started me on Lithium, which has kept me stable for most of the time since, provided I look after myself.

So yes, I have “mental ill-health”, and will have it for the rest of my life, and I call it by its name – mental ill-health. It has not stopped me from doing things, including being Chair of this wonderful charity, Jobs in Mind, but it is not some passing “problem” or “issue”, but a condition that has affected the past 44 years of my life, and brought tragedy to me and my family.

To be continued!

Author: Penny Abraham, Chair, Jobs in Mind

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