Monday 31 July 2017

Education: mental health’s preventative medicine

How a lack of education delayed my diagnosis of bipolar disorder

- Edward Huntly

In February, I was diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Affective Disorder, a condition which causes me to cycle between the extremities of mood. It was news I didn’t fully understand, and in the four months since, I’ve been forced to educate myself on an illness which will be with me for life.
In my own way, I’d learnt to understand the rhythms of my mental health from an early age, experiencing my first bout of depression aged fifteen. For years, these heavy, suffocating states made regular appearances; they would occur three or four times a year, for weeks or months at a time.

At this point, I don’t think I’d even come across the word ‘bipolar’ yet, and I had a very narrow understanding of depression. I was convinced that the term wasn’t applicable to my circumstances, because the lows always went away. Instead, I decided I was weak, unique and abnormal, which led me to suffer in silence.

By the time I arrived at university, several years later, these depressions had become darker, more dangerous, and much more volatile. Within days, I could abruptly shift from a ‘low’ to a state of high energy, confidence and character, completely detached from the mood that preceded it.
Now, when the depressions lifted, I faced new challenges: periods of rapid and obsessive thoughts which would immobilise me as much as the lows. The complete lack of control was, and still is, terrifying. Finally, I sought help.

I was referred to a psychiatrist, and was told with conviction that these symptoms were all typical of bipolar. The diagnosis was an unwelcome surprise, but also a liberating one; I had finally been given a framework within which to understand, and a clinical vocabulary with which to express, the experiences of the previous six years.

Together, we explored the developments of my mental health since adolescence: the changing form of my depressions, the significance of its cycling nature, and the neglected symptoms of ‘highs’. Hypomanic episodes, the other ‘pole’ of the condition, tend to be characterized by euphoria, unchallenged ambition, disinhibition, high energy, and the rapid thoughts I’d become well acquainted with.

We discussed my unpredictable spending sprees: the unused accordion, the £1,000 pursuit to learn three languages at once, and the vast array of old boxes I’d considered essential at the time of purchase. Then came the erratic behaviour. Just weeks earlier, dressed in chequered shirts, I invested hundreds in wood-whittling kits and, to a background of country music, I planned a trip to remote Alaska, believing that my destiny lay with the land.

Despite my symptoms being relatively pronounced, I knew little about bipolar’s lesser known characteristics, and had subsequently been unable to connect the complexities of my mental health to it. As a result, the medication that aims to halt the progression of bipolar disorder came into my life much later than was ideal.

I lacked an education on the details, experiences and realities of mental health; instead, I drew on the popular misconceptions which mental health stigma creates. I formed a deeply entrenched belief that my mental health was a self-inflicted weakness, and became determined that I didn’t deserve help.
A comprehensive education to explore the origins of my mental health would have challenged this philosophy, and would have given me reliable information on which I could base an understanding of my experiences.

Education should be seen as mental health’s preventative medicine. It confronts the stigma, stands up to ignorance, and strengthens solidarity. It’s reassurance to those who suffer that they are not alone, and that they are not to blame for the ill health that befalls them.

Hi, I'm Ed! Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder. Ever since, I have been trying to understand my condition. This is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about my experience, and in doing so, I hope to help break down the barriers for those around me which prevent us from openly discussing our mental health. 

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