At a conference I was told to stop moaning by a man I’d never met. The man in question was standing behind me in the coffee queue; I wasn’t even talking to him and his comment came completely out of the blue. Talking to a small group of colleagues, I was explaining that I went from first day of PhD to successfully completing my viva in less than three years. My PhD was spent in a blur of bipolar mania, which left me bald from stress, very overweight and completely exhausted. I am still recovering. Let’s get this straight right now: bipolar is not a useful tool for productivity – it is a life-long mental health condition and should be treated as such. The interrupting man thought I was moaning about speeding through a PhD, peddling along without a care on a bipolar bicycle of efficiency. While I gave him a look of surprise at his interjection, he informed me that I am “one of those lucky manic depressives that should just quit moaning”. Everything I have ever been told about being an academic with bipolar is encapsulated in that one phrase. Indeed, it is everything that is wrong with the perception of bipolar in both academia and society more generally.
Bipolar is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses and one of the most problematic. According to Bipolar UK, approximately 1-2% of the adult British population are affected, although as many as 5% are thought to be on the bipolar spectrum. A diagnosis takes on average 10.5 years and comes after 3 to 4 misdiagnoses. Not everyone experiences dizzying highs; the lows may not be as pronounced for some. It is a condition that varies dramatically. My bipolar presents with long, angry, solitary manic periods, in which I can churn out thousands of pages to the exclusion of all else. Does that sound good to you? It’s not.
Think of the angriest you’ve ever been. Did it hurt – physically and emotionally leave you raw? Think of the way you feel after a long writing spurt – exhausted, physically drained, numb perhaps. Now think of those feelings drawn out over a period of months, with no end in sight. Relief comes in the form of deep depression. Some relief! To be told I should be grateful for this was stunning.But why am I even surprised? We know that mental health carries tremendous stigma. It’s one of the few acceptable prejudices left in 21st-century Britain, the butt of many a comedian’s joke. If this man (a successful academic, I might add) believes that bipolar is nothing but a tool for productivity, then what other, more damaging misconceptions might be flying around? That academia is supposed to be a place of enlightenment and higher learning, the intellectual elite of Britain, is not reflected in collective lack of information about mental health. This is not good enough. This needs to change. Now. Misconceptions about conditions that affect individuals to this degree can be dangerous. We wouldn’t accept misinformation about diabetes being widely circulated without correction so why should we allow it for bipolar and other mental health conditions? I was incredibly lucky and received excellent support from my supervisors and my peers, although the university support networks were less helpful. Again, the curse of the umbrella “mental health support” meant that there was nothing tailored to me (or even just to bipolar) and in the end I gave up. Speaking more broadly, mental health education is improving. As a nation, we are beginning to understand that you can’t “get over” mental health issues; they are as serious and as life-affecting as any other chronic condition. This is a big step forward but now we need to start getting into the specifics.
Mental health conditions are all different and, even within a diagnosis, exist on a spectrum. To lump everything together under one banner heading is at best naïve, at worst irresponsible. You may say “these things take time” but I’ve been hearing that for years. Time is running out. Mental health waits for no one. There is no reason why the acceptance and understanding of mental health conditions should not be the norm, both in academia and elsewhere. Universities must engage with both individuals and organisations to do their part, using education and training to crack down on misinformation and discrimination. The resources are readily available. It is for us now to make the move to educate ourselves and take up arms against ignorance and prejudice that is, for so many of us, life-changing.
This article first appeared The Guardian, 13 March 2015.