People with mental health problems are normal too
12 April 2004

Despite the fact that one in four of us suffer from mental health problems, many films, television programmes and other media still stereotype mental health patients as out of control...

"In the national media and on television, mental health is only mentioned when something has gone wrong," said Mick Walsh, from Mackworth. "It's often about a murder that's been committed by someone who 'should have been in hospital' or 'should have been on drugs'. It is a fact that there are many more murders by so-called normal people than by people with mental illness."

Mick (54) is chairman of Derbyshire Patients' Council, a group of people who use mental health services in the county and campaign for greater understanding and better services. According to Mick, one in four people have mental health problems at any one time and that one in 10 will suffer at some point during their lifetime. "Look around yourself, in any crowded place, see if you can spot the quarter who have mental health issues," he said. "Of course you can't. People with mental health problems are normal too.

"There are 659 Members of Parliament, which statistically means more than 160 could have a mental health problem. When we're lobbying parliament, I often wonder if MPs think they're exempt."

Mick's two colleagues - Ethel Ward (82) and Gill Earl (53) - laugh. They are also members of Derbyshire Patients' Council, which has been in existence for nearly 11 years. The trio are keen to speak out about their own mental health problems to show the public that they are just normal people who happen to have medical problems that can be addressed.

"One of the most damaging things people can say to you, is 'pull yourself together'," said Gill, from Whatstandwell, who has bipolar disorder (manic depression). "There's nothing anyone can do or say to lift depression. You have to be treated with medication."

Ethel lives in a residential home in Burton Road, Littleover, and has the same condition. She said: "There's still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. I've been ill for 28 years." Ethel takes prozac, lithium and one other drug.

Gill has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder for seven years. Her condition is controlled by medication. "I'm in a transitional stage at the moment," she said. "I've just been taken off lithium, which is quite a toxic drug. I'm now taking a new generation drug called seroequel. So I'm having withdrawal problems from lithium and new side effects from seroequel. I'm afraid side effects go hand in hand with drugs. The new one makes me very sleepy and sluggish."

Mick has borderline personality disorder and clinical depression. "I'm double-labelled," said Mick. "They give these nice labels, nice names, to carry around with you." Mick takes diazepam, seroktet and chloroprozamine.

"Like Gill, I get sleepy," he said. "That's one way I cope, actually. If I feel ill, I retire to bed. When I'm going through a bad patch, I don't look after myself properly. I don't shave or shower."

All three get upset by the ignorance of some people they encounter who have no insight into mental illness and are happy to bandy around terms like "nutter" and "lunatic".

"I grew up in Mackworth," said Mick. "It's not that far from Kingsway Hospital and it was common to refer to it as the local 'loony bin'. You grow up with that impression. Now I know a lot more about it and I can get very defensive when people use derogatory terms. It rubs me up the wrong way. It's the same for all service users. I wish people wouldn't make disparaging comments about something they don't know about. That's why we want to speak out and educate people."

Gill agreed: "It's an area we would like to target. Our ultimate goal would be to make people understand and show that there's nothing unusual or scary about people with mental illness. People don't think it's an issue until it happens to them or their family. Can you remember the initial headlines when Frank Bruno had problems? There were dreadful and there was a public outcry. Things are changing slowly. That really lifted the profile of how mental illness is treated in the media and highlighted the fact that anyone can have a mental health problem. Frank Bruno was probably the last person anyone would think would have mental illness. It just showed that no one is immune. I think it helped public understanding. A lot of people who are mentally ill see it as a weakness, a slight on their character and they feel shame. I feel very strongly that people shouldn't feel like that. It's not something the depressed person can stop. You can't 'pull yourself together'."

Mick nodded: "Some people think mental illness only happens to weak people. Anyone who says that doesn't know what they're talking about. I used to have a friend who called me Jekyll and Hyde, because one day I would be talkative and chatty, but the next day I wouldn't speak. It's sometimes hard to explain to people what you have. You get a mixed reaction. Some people are open-minded, other people wish you'd never said anything. They don't know where to look or what to say. We are people. It does not make us a lesser person because we have to take medication. Look at Winston Churchill. He had depression, which he called his 'black dog'."

Gill gave an example of a very positive response she had. She said: "I'd not long been diagnosed when I decided I'd to get out and about to try to build up my confidence again. I approached a charity shop to see if I could do some voluntary work. I told them I had a mental health problem and they were very understanding. They saw first hand that some days I was very quiet and didn't want to talk. And other days I was energetic and full of ideas on how to rearrange the shop. They were very understanding."

Gill is also keen to point out that mental illness can strike anyone from any walk of life. "In the patients' council, we have members ranging from professionals like teachers to manual workers," she explained. "There are no boundaries to mental illness."

Mick said: "It's a big personal frustration to me that I can't work. I don't like living on benefits. I wish there was some way the workplace could be made more flexible to cope with people like me. But the system is such that you're either working or not. There's no telling when I might get an episode of depression when all I want to do is stay at home where I know I'm safe. Without mixing with people, as I have, from the Patients' Council, I wouldn't have as good an understanding of my condition. The support we can get from the group is fantastic. But we still need to spread the word and get the same understanding and support from the wider public. We'd like to see the back of the stigma associated with mental illness ... for good."

You can contact the Mental Health Foundation on 020 7802 0300 or visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk.