Be Careful: Personality and Mental Health Aren't the Same
Hello to you kind soul!
I can safely assume that because you are willing to read a subject most people are fearful of and avoid, that you are a kind and curious person, so I am most grateful. Let me introduce myself as you most likely don't know me, my name's Steven Hesse, host/creator of the Geek Apocalypse Podcast and host/producer of the Mentally Sound radio show,amongst other things (feel free to snoop at www.geekapocalypse.com to see all I do!)
I am a huge geek, I love to read, I play several instruments, love science and I am insanely curious about life. Which is why asking questions is in my eyes the most enjoyable thing I do in whatever form I do it in. I love to learn, which is why one of the things I talk openly about is I also suffer from the at times unbearable disorder known as bipolar, which is why I've deliberately started this blog by giving you a rough idea of who I am and underline that I may have bipolar, but it doesn't define my whole life. So I hope at the very least by reading this it encourages you to think, and like I said, ask questions. Because as an interviewer, podcaster, mental health blogger, activist, host, that's my job: to make you think.
So before we get into this, let me give you a quick background of me and my illness before I address the title of this piece more specifically. I was diagnosed at around 15, after having trouble at school, as having severe depression which was then changed after my first serious breakdown to bipolar disorder 2 years later. I have dealt with my disorder since then through therapy and medication in combination and had a second serious breakdown in late 2014 where, I was put in a psychiatric ward for just over two months. Being now 28 I have lived knowingly with the disorder for around 10 years and trying to live with it. I also live alone and I am in the process of getting a dog.......I just wanted to do what some do in articles and add a unnecessary, irrelevant sentence of context, hope it was appreciated.....
Firstly, it helps to talk about mental health, objectively. It's interesting but sometimes, in all honesty, I'm bored of talking about it. However, my inspiration and reason in writing about this subject comes from the willingness people have to define me as the guy that has a life-threatening illness, rather than the guy that's kind, generous, caring, thoughtful and has a lot of desirable qualities. I am aware that I talk about mental health a lot, but only to help others who may be going through it themselves and to embrace the truth that I do have something that affects me everyday. Hopefully, with the honesty I write, it will also encourage others to talk openly about it for themselves. I always make the point of, Martin Luther King did not have just black people protesting on Capital Hill, he had white people supporting their worthwhile case too. He was sensible and intelligent enough to know that we need the general population or, dare I say, other side to be involved just as much as the people going through it, as we need all of us to make that big of a difference.
It's funny, as I told you about my history, it made me want to talk about competitiveness that people with mental health have sometimes, where its fighting to justify that their opinion means something when really..... everyone's opinion already does matter by default. Or that it's so important to be going through something worse than you that it is all they want to argue about. It's something mental health sufferers do a lot of, and I see to an alarming degree. Where some say, "I have a more extreme version of the illness" so by definition I know more or I just know more than you do because of age or gender or experience, which to me is an unintelligent, ignorant, argument and one I care little to spend time debating.
Just to clarify, of course if you have an illness and your reluctant to be better or learn more, then granted, they are not as aware as you are and are that dreaded word responsible, but my point is some treat everyone that way. That we are all uneducated and wrong or ignorant. When you meet someone twice your age that says, you'll understand dear as you know what I do, you become to realise that it is such a crap attitude to have and is simply patronising and more relevantly, it doesn't solve anything. How about sharing your knowledge? Because they are scared to be proven wrong. I've met some extremely uneducated closed people that are far older than me but don't seek help or want to learn, either because they cant look at anything objectively or its this stiff upper lip attitude of, I still don't have a problem. That does not make them better or more valuable than me. Its like baby on board stickers, I actually care about everyone in the car, not just the baby.
There's also a great deal of wrong information that gets floated around, which is part of the problem I want to face. I think many would understand my view that bipolar may not define me, but it's a big part of me and what I have to deal with, so I'd rather be open about it than hide from it..…...I sound like a preacher....the truth shall see you free!!!
In all seriousness, not only is this behaviour happening to me, but to the general community of people that deal with mental health everyday and get pigeon-holed because of it. I see all the time this approach that thinks our personality, the way we behave 95% of the time, is the same as the way we are when we are struggling severely with our mental health the rest of the time. In my eyes it's because people are aware we deal with something that affects us all the time, and when you see the bad side, the instant thing humans do is apply that to the rest of what you go through. i.e putting it in a nice little easy box. You would never look at the good things you do in life with someone and go, but remember that one night where we went out and it just wasn't as fun?? it would be treated as a forgettable night but not as a reason to dismiss all the good times as flukes.
It's funny isn't it?? When having to deal with mental health, we are regarded in general as being negative and yet the people and society around you focus on the negatives even more than you do and then criticise you for all that you feel is negative. I just don't think humans are aware of what an influence we have to each other and how much that reinforces the stigma. How hard is that to deal with and not get angry?? When you're the one that medically is having involuntary negative thoughts and, if given the choice, you wouldn't want to feel like that and they're reinforcing that feeling by saying you deserve feeling that way because you're not good enough. Who would choose to feel bad every other second of every day? Yet we are more than happy when given the choice to focus on the negative.
If you think about what I said about in focusing on the extreme 5%, discrimination comes from being treated for something minor in the grand scale of things, just like the civil rights movement I mentioned earlier, so how it this any different?? It doesn't mean it doesn't matter or isn't important to combat and fight against. Especially when it's a problem we all are going to face in our lifetime. I think of the fact that if I had a family of 5, the chances are one of them would have to deal with mental health issues in their life. Wouldn't that encourage you to treat it seriously even if it was just to help a future loved one???
I think we should only ask one thing if we are to have any criteria for this and it's not just for mental health. The simple question of 'do you want to be better?' If the answers yes, I don't care what you do or do not understand or haven't done, I care that you want to understand more because that tells me you're aware of your own ignorance and you're trying. As Cornel West said in an interview, "the scope of ones intelligence is being aware of ones lack of intelligence". You will never hear me say I know everything (because I'm not an idiot) but I feel it's my duty to know more everyday about my disorder that I will always have to cope with.
I have to admit, It annoys me when people get that irrelevant pathetic word 'offended' that I encourage people to be more open, because yes, it's a persons right to be private and closed about it, but if you choose to do that and then cry fowl openly and publicly that you're struggling and want sympathy, then it's my right to say you can't have it both ways and if you want people to react to that better, you need to own 100% of your illness in being open about it, not just when it goes wrong, but when you're doing things right as well.
Anyway, back to personality versus mental health, which I have started to touch on, the root of my argument. If I used that criteria of 'do you want to be better?' During my time when I was ill and struggling, I tried everything within my power to get better; from trying to recover, taking time off, doing more of what worked before, telling people I cared about I was struggling, to varying treatment. Yet. instead of getting the right help professionally or privately and being encouraged, the thing you get from both sides is, well you're not doing enough, or you need to try harder. I will get to the professional problems later, but privately, some of these people had known me for years, my very nature is I try too hard, I get obsessed with things I care about and I have learned over the years ways of taking a step back and taking breaks. The point I'm getting at, there is overwhelming evidence that my personality is committed and persistent and honest and if you read case studies it's the same problem, is that people in this position attack your personality when you're ill, rather than understanding that you're ill and help you get back to where you once were. You're not capable of being that person again which is why you need help to get back there in the first place.
It seems silly to say this, but what is the definition of being ill?? 'suffering from an illness or disease or feeling unwell' or being 'poor in quality'. Basically not being well or no longer yourself or capable. Yet when anyone with mental health gets severely ill, you are not compared to the person you are, your treated like you've always been the person that shouts irregularly, that cant be a friend, that doesn't love anything, thats a screw up, thats giving up for no reason, that can't cope as well as others can, thats become quote 'a worthless individual'. I had people that said they would love me forever for years who I consider brothers and sisters in friendship who once I got ill pretended they never said that, and when I offered to repeat my genuine feelings about them and show evidence to the contrary it was met with, but look at the way your behaving now??? I can't trust you anymore in what you say. forgetting all the evidence of what a noble, moral person I am when well. I don't need anyone to show me that when well, because I've spent so much time finding out who I am and want to be that I know I am a good human being, because I choose to work on it every single day, to question everything. If I told you some of things people have said to me privately, they are unbelievably flattering,but its because if you speak to any of my closest friends, I am loyal, I value company and giving time and most crucially, I want to be the best I can be individually, but also the best friend, the best lover, the best companion, you name it.
It makes you think, how much of a great actor would I be if I was faking it for all those years??? Daniel Day Lewis would need to come to me about method acting. I was simply suffering through an illness no one deserves and in no short terms I was fighting for my life. If a cancer victim was unable to get out of bed because of the pain they were going through, would a friend be considered a good person for going into the hospital and shouting at them for not being able to walk?? yet no one morally questions that attitude with mental health because it is always the person suffering mental health problems thats at fault. My mother has survived cancer and has Parkinson's and not once did I say to her while caring for her 'but how much pain are you really in??? cos it doesn't seem enough to me'.
I will always appreciate what my Mam did for me in terms of raising me. I'm here because of that commitment, thats the least amount of respect she deserves. If one decides to only be there for the good times, and not when extreme problems happen, aren't we all users then??? and if so, why would I want to be part of that society I am trying to get back to? I keep finding myself going to that point of, with mental health, this attitude is perfectly acceptable and frighteningly encouraged, yet to me it seems blatantly immoral and unjust at worst and misunderstood at best..
This misrepresentation of who I really am I actually felt earlier writing about the psychiatric ward. It is that connotation and fear of people judging you as mad and not worth knowing because of the portrayal those wards have still even now in society. The shame your meant to feel ending up there,at the last resort possible. We actually talked about that very subject on Mentally Sound once, where I mentioned my first time being made aware of such wards was reading the great novel Regeneration at college. For those that haven't read the book, is about poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen being treated psychologically after returning from duty in World War 1 in a psychiatric ward in Scotland. When I was in the ward I was in, thats how I felt people viewed me and we are talking around 100 years after the book is set in, which tells you how little we've progressed. Thats what I think the issue is to why certain people are treated that way. People don't understand enough about mental health and its just easier to blame. But what the bigger and frightening issue is, people think they understand mental health and the systems fine, and thats what needs to be clarified truthfully.
I mentioned private help earlier, so let me now talk professional. In my case one of the alarming things about ending up In the care of a mental health team is they do not listen to the individual and every decision is made with a team privately deciding whats best for you. Almost like your not involved in the process, like some sort of lab rat. I used to scream at one particular worker who would come to my house and act so patronising and say generic things that my 7 year old nephew at the time could say to me. 'look on the positive side' 'try not to be negative' 'do fun things' while your future is being decided in another place, and for the most part its non action and quick medication. They are what I call 'hollow advice' and 'hollow help' as in its cheap to say and cheap to do. To me, It sums up the problem with the UK health system today. The only chance of real help that you need is when your close enough to your life being destroyed and worthless that wanting to die is the only option you see to get rid of the pain, and then they care. To which then people say, look it's a cry for help. I swear to you that at the time, I did not care about what people thought, I just wanted the pain to stop. This opens up the wider point, and I don't want to get too political however, we hear all the time the long term help people need is too expensive and the wait is too long, yet the negligence of not caring when it's starting to happen leads to issues becoming long term problems in the first place. You stop it getting severe, you stop the long term care. But we shouldn't need that reason to want to help people, just cos it costs less. It should be cos it's better for the patient and just care for a fellow human being. End of discussion.
There are a lot of problems with the system. I feel sorry for the people that work within the system, it's not their fault and yet they are the ones that get criticised. In my eyes, stop people making the decisions from outside the NHS and let it be self sustaining, but again, every decision is made with money in mind. Surely if anything shouldn't be money orientated is a public health system. Even when it comes to looking after people, the bureaucracy that takes place, nurses spend more time writing paperwork than doing their job. They are not lawyers. I had one conversation where it had to stop after 5 minutes because the nurse said, 'we have to stop as I have to write up what we just talked about' . What if that conversation was helping me cope that day? But the paperwork is more important. It's like a scientist spending 99% of his time note taking and next to no time practically doing an experiment. You then end up leaving hospital and end up back on the waiting list for help that you were on before you entered, again endlessly waiting up to a year for the core help you need.
One of the main factor to this attitude I want to bring up is medication and how that leads to people being misinformed. One of the first things that doctors will do is give medication to solve issues a patient may have. Remember any psychotropic drugs you take are changing your brain chemistry which could change how you behave and act. In simple terms, some of these could be poison for the individual taking them. I have read so many examples of where medication exasperates the problem rather than make it better and its because they don't admit the medication is not working fast enough. Plus medication is far cheaper than long term therapy for example. One of the things that doctors and the NHS do that leads to more issues, is they never think they are wrong until it starts affecting a patient sometimes critically. I had massive physical problems cos they gave me a medication that was hurting me, A guy I met that had schizophrenia was disabled because of a wrong injection he was given. My friend John nearly died from a blood clot by being given too much steroids. If you read about any repeat service users, they end up having more issues related to the wrong medication, that the illness they were being treated for in the first place.
I understand that doctors etc.... they know more medically than I do, I'm not saying that whatsoever but mental health is fundamentally about the psychological impact the treatment has on the brain. The only way you can understand how effective treatment has been is what the patient tells you of its effect, be positive or negative. Yet if you say to your doctor that it doesn't feel right, they still leave you on it for longer than they should because they know if it isn't working, your in care longer cos they have to slowly introduce you to some other form of medication. Which means they've failed in their job. But isn't the failure not doing what's best for the patient?? And your still waiting longer than you should in hell waiting for the right treatment. That you should have got months before.
My care plan after I left hospital, to use my example, was not worth the paper it's printed on. They were going to assign me a therapist in my local team, and that team didn't even have a therapist on staff. And you're back to not being a priority case, back to the same situation as if a person walked into a GP and yet I had health problems leaving the ward which was their fault. I just couldn't stay there any longer, cos you start getting more psychological problems the longer you stay there. Such as being anxious about getting back into society as one example. I ask you, do I deserve being told by people that months before would stay at my house willingly and affectionately, that I wasn't doing enough, or trying enough?? and that this support is so good that I'm just denying obvious help?? What part of this is me having a bad attitude?
I'm not asking for special treatment in that case, because I hope it's clear I want the help for everyone, but it to me seems obvious that I was in a extreme situation.yet I was in the same situation as someone just walking into a GP needing a bit of support because they are at the first stage of recovery. At the time I had been unwell since July as out of hospital by November and then waited agonisingly to get my own housing in march completely without help, just sheer will. there's no support network even at that level, I needed significant care when I got out and it was not there.
In a simplistic sense, it is assumed by people that mild depression, for example, is the same as what I went through, because you get given the same medication. Which couldn't be more wrong. I've heard people say, well I got given anti-depressants when I was down and it worked for me, so why can't you get through it??? I did. And that's the problem. It's the ignorance of it's the same tablet, it must mean I'm going through the same thing. Wrong. For starters, anti-depressants were one part of what I was taking, as depression is a symptom of bipolar, not the cause. It's a different situation, and I'm very careful to not suggest I'm more important, cos I'm not, but to say that situation verses a person taking a couple of days of work is not the same thing. I lost 8 months of my life fighting to beat this particular breakdown.
Also, you have to be aware that treatment for any form of mental health, is trial and error. Just think simplistically, why are we unique? It's our characteristics and our genetic makeup within our brains that makes us individuals, so it makes sense that medications will have different reactions to our chemical balance. You could put 1000 people with bipolar disorder in one room and all of them could be treated differently with different combinations. So my point is, if you give me a drug and someone next to me the same drug and dose, it most likely will have a different reaction for each person. If you want a life example, just look at alcohol, that's a drug and we don't all like the same drink do we? Some drinks people can tolerate more than others, and like one more than others. I hate Baileys for example, yet it's my mothers favourite drink and that's a genetic comparison. Why do we look at drugs for mental health differently? Because we are uneducated on it and yet most would claim they are.
As you can see, I've got a lot of my chest, or my brain in this case, but the key criticism should be reserved for the media. Let me give you some facts from Time to Change website:
Statistics about violence and mental illness
- The majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems.
- People with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others:90 per cent of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress
- In 2009, the total population in England and Wales aged 16 or over was just over 43 million. It is estimated that about one in six of the adult population will have a significant mental health problem at any one time, (more than 7 million people). Given this number and the 50–70cases of homicide a year involving people known to have a mental health problem at the time of the murder, clearly the statistics data do not support the sensationalised media coverage about the danger that people with mental health problems present to the community.
- Substance abuse appears to play a role: The prevalence of violence is higher among people who have symptoms of substance abuse (discharged psychiatric patients and non-patients).
As these facts reinforce, there is a common fear that anyone with mental health issues leads to becoming serial killers or harmful to other people. The media have a lot to answer in that regard as in order to get quick answers, they blame mental health instantly. If I told you the true fact that I like watching documentaries on serial killers and I have seen a lot of them, there will be someone who would read that and know I have bipolar disorder and think I am potentially dangerous. As the research indicates, you are just as likely to attack or hurt someone in a drunken argument or an angry discussion with someone and reacting as someone whose suffering from mental health issues. If I just sit and think of examples I have seen in my lifetime, some of the worst things I have seen have been alcohol related, but because thats a social activity and legal, we are reluctant to blame it as a key factor. Just think of the last headline you seen about a mental health topic, it most likely has an example of depression being a reason for people to do horrible things, because It means anyone reading that can go 'yep, that makes sense' without stopping to think why. We are programmed with the limited information given that its inherently bad, dangerous, cruel.
If you watch a serial killer documentary for example, one of things they teach you is that the environmental and social factors in their childhood or growing up plays a key factor in how they end up attacking others and having violent tendencies. If you compare it to my life, my family were very disciplined about drugs for example, politeness and although my dad was violent, it was always made known to me that his behaviour was just tolerated but it was always shown to me to be wrong and unacceptable in private. I am aware when I think about that particular time now that I know its wrong, because I had enough people around me to say, thats not normal, thats not right. I know the difference and I've never hit anyone in my life because Its who I am. It the way I was brought up, Its my personality, and the key point is, I never felt different in that way when unwell that suddenly I wanted to start killing everything in site. Yet, I was judged like I had, and the sad thing is, I'm really not alone in this..
So....to end, I hope I have argued enough to say mental health does not lead to you losing who you really are, and it doesn't lead to the person suddenly losing their morals and losing the core of who they are. I'm not here to say it's easy, but I don't think it deserves us being chucked in a ward and forgotten about either. Yes we can make bad decisions, swear and lose our temper but so do a lot of incapable people when they have something wrong with them. We have a broken brain! And in some cases, like mine, it will never fully go away. You wouldn't say to a person with broken leg 'you can walk on it, just try harder' and yet that's the go-to line people say to you when your struggling mentally. Or they constantly compare what they go through to you. I would never say to a friend who needs help 'but having compared you to me, what your going through is nothing'. I've been fortunate that people have wrote to me saying it's helped them immensely to either understand or grow or be open, which is just incredible to receive.
I honestly can say to you, hand on heart, that for the most part (and I know they are exceptions) mental health sufferers are someone that deserve to be known, are the most interesting, most kind, most generous and deserve to be helped and not forgotten. Yet, we are in an environment where people would much rather be closed and discriminatory and self-surviving, scared of being proved wrong and live in ignorance or denial, that it doesn't lead to any of the more wider issues being addressed.…..because like I said earlier, if you're on the other side of the fence, we really do need you, now more than ever.....
And if you're on my side of the fence, I offer you a hug and I hope your getting the help you need and you have people around that have empathy and understand.