I am a 63-year-old New Zealander. I’m happily married with two adult sons and two grandsons and work from home in the suburbs of Auckland as a freelance writer. I also suffer from bipolar disorder, which I believe I manage very well. Over the years since I first became ill as a teenager, I have seen huge improvements in the public perception of mental illness, but believe we still have a way to go.
I was about 10 or 11 years old when my father first was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. I can remember being very confused and asking my teacher if my dad had gone mad. This was back in the ’60s when no one really discussed mental illness. If it was talked about, it was in hushed tones. Sufferers were described as being “nervy” or having “bad nerves.”
My father was in his early 50s, a very successful farmer — a big man with a big personality and manic depression (or bipolar disorder). Over the years, we got used to his mood swings. When he was on a high, he’d be frantically sorting out overseas funds and then arrive home with an exotic new car. And when he was down we always knew as closed curtains meant he’d taken to his bed and we had to tiptoe around.
Over the years, he had several stays in a private psychiatric clinic in Dunedin in the south of New Zealand. Then called Ashburn Hall, it is now known as Ashburn Clinic. But my father had an outgoing personality and real charisma (courtesy of his Irish genes) and did revel in long periods of good health. When he was unwell, relatives and friends would always say in a whisper: “Is Paddy up the hill again?”
I also spent time up that hill in Ashburn Hall. After the birth of my first child I had a nervous breakdown — another term not heard much nowadays. I was actually doing pelvic floor exercises there in the clinic when I realized the manic-depressive a nurse was referring to was me! I’d been ill in my late teens, but never actually labeled before and at 28, that really felt like a death knell.
I’ve been very fortunate. Like my dear old dad (who died suddenly with a heart attack at the age of 71), I have marvelous support from a very sensible spouse. And the medications my father struggled with at times are so much better nowadays.
I also have an enlightened GP and an excellent specialist I haven’t needed to see in years, but is always available at the end of a phone if advice is needed. To keep well, I make sure I look after my physical health, plan my schedule so stress is avoided as much as possible and try to avoid getting overtired.
And while there definitely remains lots of work to do in New Zealand to improve the public perception of mental illness, we have come a long way in the last five decades. Many of us have been watching the multi-award-winning television series “Homeland,” with a female lead character who suffers from bipolar disorder. Can you imagine (if you are of age) a sitcom heroine with a mental illness even in the 1970s — say, Wonder Woman or one of Charlie’s Angels? I can’t see it happening back then as attitudes to mental illness were so closed.
With the educational work done by New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation — including very good television ads featuring well-known local personalities — big steps have been taken to improve the understanding of mental illness among average Kiwis.
Former All Black (with the sport of rugby resembling the Holy Grail in NZ) and rugby coach, Sir John Kirwan, made a huge impact when he admitted to having confronted mental illness.
Sir John Kirwan (or JK as he is affectionately known by his New Zealand fans) became an All Black in the days when the top rugby player symbolized that old tough macho image of a Kiwi bloke — a good, keen man who when times got tough would just pull his socks up and get on with it. But he had great courage to step out and talk about his struggle with depression. And as a result, others were able to open up about mental health issues.
A small change in the vernacular also has helped. Somehow bipolar disorder sounds so much more palatable and less confrontational than manic depression.
With the assistance of ever-helpful Google, I discovered in the early 1950s, Karl Leonhard introduced the term bipolar to differentiate it from major depressive disorder, unipolar depression. In 1980 the term manic depression was officially changed in the classification system to bipolar disorder.
Medical professionals also championed the change because they believed the term “manic depression” had been strongly stigmatized with phrases like manic Monday and homicidal maniac.
Sadly, while there have been these improvements in attitudes, there is still lots of prejudice out there. I remember a business associate (an intelligent, professional woman) actually recoiling from me when I told her I was manic-depressive. And when I met a very successful recruitment person at a social function and asked her if she would hire a person with a history of mental illness, her immediate (without even a nanosecond’s hesitation) reaction was: “Hell, no!”
It takes time to learn to function within the limits of the illness, but with good professional help and ongoing support, it’s possible to live a really full life.
There might be some very bleak weeks and some super-creative days, but according to history, some of the greatest architecture and music were created by bipolar sufferers. And don’t forget Winston Churchill – he was one of us!