An uneven playing field: Are people with certain mental illnesses treated more unfairly by society than others? | A Lust For Life

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It was a Saturday morning and I woke up in the acute psychiatric ward in Ennis, Co. Clare. This was my fourth day in the hospital but it was the first day that my clarity of thought had returned and the first day that I became aware that I’d just experienced a 3-month long bipolar (hypomanic) high. The medication change was obviously working (thankfully) and I woke up with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude that my sanity was slowly being restored. The next emotions I experienced were shock and overwhelm – I hadn’t experienced a bipolar high since I had been diagnosed over 6 years earlier, and it had completely taken me by surprise.

I stayed in the hospital for another week or so, the doctors and nurses were closely monitoring my progress. In real terms, I came back to “myself” fairly quickly, but this part of the journey was only the start of my recovery. I now had to start the process of rebuilding my life. Unfortunately, bipolar highs can rip your life apart. For example, at the beginning of my high, I quit my job, left my apartment and all my belongings in the UK and had cut almost my entire group of family and friends off, while delusion took over my life.

The excess of dopamine and compromised balance of neurotransmitters in my brain during the high meant that I was experiencing delusions which completely distorted my view of reality. When your view of reality is led by delusion…the result can be a figurative car crash! (I won’t go into the detail of the delusions, but mainly, they were not fun!) Luckily, the right medication can rebalance your neurotransmitters, dissolving delusions and “resetting” your brain back to a balanced state.

The above is just a short snapshot into the reality of living with bipolar disorder. I will stress that the majority of the time, I am well and live a happy, balanced life. However, when an episode hits, it’s a tough one to manage!

I think there is a general acceptance of many mental illnesses in Irish society now. People talk about depression and anxiety, (and the devastating impact they can have), fairly openly. However, I am a firm believer that people with certain conditions are being left behind.

As someone living with a mental illness that is categorised as “severe”, I am acutely aware of the misconceptions and stigma that still surround it. I do believe that we have come a long way in terms of talking about mental illness in general, but the playing field is not level.

Consider this…if a friend told you that they had just been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, would you react in the same way as if they told you they had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia? I’d like to believe that the answer is yes, but I don’t think that this is the case for everyone.

There are still a lot of misconceptions out there about illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders… the main one being that people with these conditions pose a risk to others. This is probably one of the most difficult misconceptions to live with, especially when the research clearly shows that people living with these illnesses are more likely to harm themselves or be the victims of harm, than they are to harm another person.

As a (wannabe!) advocate for people living with mental illness, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to come up with strategies to educate the general population about the realities of living with these conditions. In doing so, I believe that society can approach us with empathy, sensitivity, warmth, and inclusivity, over fear and distrust.

I think a good start would be a “walk in my shoes” type campaign which could use animation or virtual reality to allow people to experience, for example, what a delusion is and how it can distort your thinking during a bipolar high or how depersonalisation can impact someone with borderline personality disorder…

I believe that it’s only through education and “walking a day in our shoes” that true understanding and empathy can ensue…because the only way that stigma can be dissolved is through people truly grasping the realities of living with these conditions.

It makes sense right? Can you think of any strategies or approaches that could help dissolve stigma? I’d love to hear from you! Maybe together, we can make a change!

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