20 years ago today, on July 21st 1995, I ran down my street naked. This unusual behaviour was caused by a manic episode of bipolar disorder, an illness that I have had since I was 18 years old.
Since this somewhat unfortunate episode, I have stayed well thanks to medication, an effective Stay Well Plan and a supportive Stay Well Committee (a group of good friends who provide ‘outside insight’).
Today, it was too cold to run down the street naked to mark this auspicious anniversary. This photo and the following story is the best I can do.
At the time of my ‘breakdown’ (which I refer to as a ‘break through’), I was a PhD student at the University of Melbourne. The University responded appallingly to my illness. In order to receive an apology, I was forced to make a complaint to the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). I could not have done this without the help of Sari Baird, Bernie Fitzgerald and Alan Roberts.
My complaint at HREOC became a Davina and Goliath struggle. It finally resulted in the University of Melbourne agreeing to give me a public apology and financial compensation. Most importantly, I was assured that policies for students with a mental illness at the University of Melbourne would be improved. I have been told that they have improved significantly. They certainly needed to.
In an era when mental illness was shrouded in shame and secrecy, I began to speak publicly about my experiences. I shouted from rooftops wherever I could – Farrago, Arena magazine, The Age, The Australian, even The Herald Sun.
A few years later, Margie Nunn, Jan Browne and I received a grant from beyondblue to interview people about how they stay well with bipolar disorder. We discovered a diverse range of strategies that people use to prevent relapses of depression and/or mania.
This research received awards from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and Australasian Society for Bipolar Disorders, suggesting that some psychiatrists do not believe in drugs as a one-fix-fix-all approach to mental illness.
Based on our interviews with 100 people who stay well with bipolar disorder, I wrote a book “A lifelong journey: staying well with manic depression/bipolar disorder”. Ten years later, I still receive emails from people to say how much this book helped them and their families. I also receive emails from doctors to say that my book has helped them to treat patients.
I hope that by talking publicly about my dreadful experiences 20 years ago that I played a small part in improving things for those who experience a mental illness.