It was a great surprise to receive a letter some months ago from Lord Bragg (he of unimpeachable Melvynous South Banksy fame) asking if I might consider taking over from him as President of the charity MIND. Only a few years ago MIND had paid me the great compliment of appointing me their 2007 mental health “Champion” so I was fully aware of the organisation and the fine work they did.
MIND, as you may or may not know is, in its (I should now say “our”) own words: “the leading mental health charity in England and Wales.” This is not to take away from SANE and the indefatigable Marjorie Wallace, or the work done by dozens, indeed hundreds, of smaller more locally based mental health charities up and down the country. I cannot bear it when charities, of all institutions, regard each other as rivals or even enemies. The superb Time to Change for example, is a result of cooperation across the sector. It also gave me great pleasure when this coalition government, for all that it is not my idea of the political dream team of the century (but which government ever was?) made good strides towards placing the issue of stigma front and centre with their initiative Shift.
The Secret Life…
So, why me? Well, as some of you may know, five years ago I made two one hour films for the BBC called “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive,” in which I told the story of my own history of cyclothymia, Bipolar Disorder, manic depression – call it what you will. Some of those I met in the course of making the films told harrowing and extraordinary stories of their struggles living with this common, and commonly misunderstood, mood disorder.
Those films certainly did seem to have quite an effect. I can quite truthfully say nothing I had ever done before or have done since, has resulted in such a mailbag. It sometimes seemed that as many doctors as lay people were writing to thank me or to take issue with or expand upon some point made in the programmes. Ross Wilson, the producer/director and I were very gratified when we were awarded an International Emmy. I had the honour too of being made a Fellow of Cardiff University: Professor Nick Craddock there had undertaken what was then I think the world’s largest genetic study of bipolar disorder (warning, v scholarly!) and I was proud to accept the Fellowship as a way of showing my admiration for his team’s work and his university’s unstinting support of it. The Royal College of Psychiatrists got me all flustered and proud too by appointing me an honorary fellow. The College’s campaign to encourage more talented medical students to choose psychiatry as a specialist study as they advance through their courses is immensely important. It seems that today’s medical student regards mental health as a less “sexy” branch of medicine in which to specialise than cardiology, say or oncology. I can only hope that this soon changes, for the advances being made in neurology, genetics, pharmacology and endocrinology show that, in fact, studying the physiology of the brain and the nature of the mind is just about the most exciting field there is in all medicine.
As with all mental illnesses, the problems posed for the person afflicted with bipolar disorder are often matched by the suffering, embarrassment, distress and indignity endured by those who live with and love them. On top of this, worst and most pernicious off all, is the stigma that goes with mental illness. It is bad enough to be afflicted by a condition that destroys the ability to find savour, pleasure, joy, energy, purpose or hope in life without being stared at, mocked or dismissed as some kind of freak, weirdo, social misfit or fraudulent hypochondriac.