People with a mental illness have had a high profile recently. First, a man with a mental illness destroyed the historic St Kilda pier kiosk. Then another man with a mental illness stopped traffic for hours on the Westgate Bridge. These incidents reinforce the stigma on all people living with a mental illness.
People with a mental illness are often associated with deviance, unemployment and substantial suffering. We hear a lot about the high rates of suicide, substance abuse, criminal behaviour and divorce. We hear much less about those of us who manage to stay well.
Those of us who experience happy and productive lives are largely absent in discussions about mental illness. For example, reports about manic depression (also known as bipolar mood disorder) claim that the illness causes “substantial suffering, disruption to quality of life and premature death”. It seems people with manic depression can, at best, aspire to a “relatively normal life”. Yet, many of us with manic depression aspire to so much more.
If people look outside the mental health system and prisons, they may discover that many of us with manic depression are living fulfilling lives. We may have our ups and downs, but many people living with manic depression are able to hold down jobs and certainly manage to stay out of prison.
People with manic depression are doctors, politicians, plumbers, artists, writers, lawyers, journalists, social researchers etc. Many are parents. Although we may take medication each day, not all of us endure substantial suffering, nor do we consider ourselves a burden on our community. After all, manic-depression is an episodic illness: most of us, most of the time, are able to enjoy our lives.
Manic-depression is often described as a “nightmare” but this has not been my experience of it. The illness, particularly the manic component which provides the energy (and the desire!) to clean the house (among other things) at 3 am, can be quite amazing. However, to be with a person when she is experiencing an episode of mania tests any friendship. It can be exhausting, even terrifying. To acknowledge the impact that this illness has on my friends, I say:
“I do not suffer from manic-depression: my friends suffer from my manic-depression”.
Like other sufferers of chronic illness, the challenge for me has been to manage the symptoms of this illness responsibly. With insight, education and support, I have learnt to manage the illness as a diabetic must learn to manage her sugar levels. With kindness, support and trust of close friends, including my mother, I developed a “stay well plan”. My Stay Well Plan includes a daily dose of lithium. Equally important are my work, recreation, social relationships and sleep.
A few years ago, I discovered that a colleague also suffered severe episodes of manic depression. I was surprised to find that we relied on different ways to prevent relapses. It sparked our curiosity to explore other people’s experiences.
With financial support from beyondblue, we are collecting stories about how people with manic depression stay well. People with manic depression from around Australia are sharing ways in which they manage to stay well. The aim of the project is to develop a comprehensive “Stay Well Plan” with some practical ideas from people who live well with manic depression. The “Stay Well Plan” will provide hope for people with manic depression, their families and friends.
Our preliminary data show that staying well is rarely just about seeing a psychiatrist and taking prescribed medication. It is often about so much more.
We have started to collect a list of many interesting and varied ways to stay well. The strategies range from dog walking to meditation. We are hoping to collect many more stories so that the “Stay Well Plan” will reflect a great diversity of ideas and strategies.
The “Stay Well Plan” will provide hope that people with manic depression can aspire to full lives. It will also help to dismantle the stigma that is so often associated with mental illness. At a time when people are focussed on the burden of mental illness, it is crucial to listen to those of us who stay well. We have many stories to tell.
First published on ABC Radio National’s Perspective on 2 October 2003