Friday, 24 July 2015

My experiences of Bipolar Disorder and what keeps me well

– Gideon Harris

Fact: 1% of the U.K population suffers with Bipolar Disorder.[1]

My name is Gideon and I am one of those sufferers. Having been diagnosed last year at the age of 20, I have learnt many lessons about what keeps me well and I’d like to share these with you. Having been in hospital for nine weeks during my last episode, I had to take a lengthy time out of university education. I hope my story and advice inspires you and helps those who are suffering with mental health difficulties.


Generally, a routine and structure to a day is vital for anyone but particularly for those experiencing mental health difficulties such as Bipolar. For me, having a routine is crucial. After being discharged, I would lie in bed for hours. Ultimately this would be detrimental to my mood and I wouldn’t really achieve a great deal. With medication and the depressive stages of my difficulties, I know too well how difficult my low days can be. From this I have learnt that just getting out of bed in the morning can make a huge difference to self-esteem and confidence. Even now, in the summer holidays, I am up every day by 9/9.30am. Little things as well have really helped me to battle the disorder such as walking my dog every day, going to the gym, reading books, working but most importantly finding discipline and structure.


During my first year of university I would live off take a ways; fish and chips, Chinese, Meal Deals, you name it, I would have it. They are ok to have from time to time but for me, to have this regularly were bad for the dopamine and serotonin levels in my brain, they started to act as depressants and could also be a trigger towards Mania. Currently, I am working on my diet. I am eating a lot of green vegetables, fruits, salmon, soups, nuts, cereals. These foods have helped my mood to improve and stabilise over time. These are foods I would whole- heartedly recommend for others experiencing Bipolar Disorder.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps to retrain your thinking patterns to think more positively. It focuses on relapse prevention, breathing techniques, behavioural models and really allows you to understand the triggers and indicators of Bipolar or other mental health difficulties such as OCD and Schizophrenia. Personally, this process did take time to work for me but having a good relationship with my psychologist was so important. Furthermore, it gave me insight into my illness and by learning about the indicators of Bipolar; it has given me the chance to take a step back when I need to.

Mindfulness focuses on deep breathing techniques and meditation and really just helps you to relax. This is something relatively new for me but the meditation involved allows my mind to calm down during stressful periods, whilst the deep breathing has been great for my concentration skills.

Support Network

Finally, having a good support network is also crucial, for me a supportive network of family and friends has been so vital in my recovery.

I have been well for nearly eight months and have achieved huge strides in combating my mental health difficulties. I will be returning to university in September and I hope whoever may be reading this and is experiencing a mental difficulty can or can continue to work towards recovery through small manageable changes to their daily routine .


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Talking - "I can't be certain that I would be any better, but I can be certain that I would have spent less of my life feeling alone"

It's been nearly six years (or 304 weeks, or 2126 days) since I began to suspect I had an eating disorder. It's been even longer since I started having problems with my mood. Yet it's only in the last 128 days that anyone in the world has known anything about this.

Although there are many reasons why I didn't tell anybody, the biggest factor was that nobody talked about mental health, so I thought I couldn't talk about mental health. And because nobody talked about it, I had no idea what was going on.

I didn't know what was wrong with me.

I didn't know that there were other people going through the same things I was.

I didn't know that I could have an eating disorder without being underweight.

I didn't know what help was available, how to get it, or whether my parents would find out if I did.

I didn't know how to even broach the subject with anyone, or who that person should be.

I didn't know if I was crazy. Or if I would ever be okay. Or if it was my fault.

So I spent over five years keeping everything to myself, because it didn't seem like there was any other option. The idea of telling anyone, even my friends or parents, just didn't seem like a possibility. In fact even a few months ago I still felt exactly the same. And that meant many years of feeling incredibly isolated and alone. I spent what were supposed to be the best days of my life, my school and university days, in a constant state of worry and lies and pretending to be okay. I was never myself with people, because I was scared of being rejected if they knew the truth - and so even though I had lots of friends, I never felt particularly close to anybody and everything I told them felt kind of superficial. That just made me feel even more alone and distant from people.

Part way through my second year at university it just got too much, so I went to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants. The doctor also suggested counselling, but I was too petrified of talking about how bad I really felt, so I just stuck with the medication. It was still another year until I told anybody anything, or even that I was taking the medication. Another year of loneliness and uncertainty. My eating disorder did not fit into one of the typical categories - I wasn't underweight and I didn't purge - so I just spent years in a limbo of starving myself and gaining the weight back; horrible enough to make every day a struggle, but not horrible enough for me to believe I deserved help or for it to be physically obvious to those around me (which just made me think nobody would believe me even if I did tell them).

It was only this year, when I actually did become underweight and I was repeatedly directly asked if I had a problem, that I finally admitted the truth, slowly - a bit at a time, to a person at a time. And nothing terrible happened. Nobody stopped being friends with me or treated me differently; in fact many people had experience of mental health difficulties themselves.

In itself this is obviously fantastic, and I am very grateful that I was able to be open and it turned out okay. But all those years I spent alone could have been avoided if I'd witnessed more openness and willingness to discuss mental health. Because I was so scared and uncertain of what would happen, I kept it to myself, and now I can't get those years back. I'm not necessarily any better, certainly not recovered, but just the knowledge that I'm not alone has felt like such a weight off my shoulders. Though it's sort of bittersweet that this weight could have been taken off my shoulders a long time ago. Obviously it was down to me whether or not I told anybody, but (like many others) I was just a kid when my problems started and I was simply too scared. I'm not even sure if, without my problems having become more physically visible this year, I'd have ever told anybody.

This is why, not only for the reason that early intervention has been shown to be very important in recovery from mental health difficulties, but also for the simple reason that I and many others didn't need to spend so many years isolated and dealing with this alone, it is vital that talking about mental health becomes less of a 'taboo' - We need much better education and awareness about mental health, especially during school when people are particularly vulnerable. I don't have all of the answers, and certainly wouldn't know where to start, but something needs to change. I wish I'd felt I had someone to talk to, or knew what I do now - I can't be certain that I would be any better, but I can be certain that I would have spent less of my life feeling alone, and for that reason alone I think it is worth it.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Transitioning out of university: how to open up a dialogue about mental health difficulties at work

That time of year has arrived when lots of students will be graduating (well done!) and starting to think about the transition out of university and into the world of work. Rosie, a member of our Exec Committee, has written this blog to help people in the workplace to start the conversation both as an employee and as a manger.

- Rosie Driffill

Despite society’s ever-increasing understanding surrounding mental health, telling a colleague or boss that you are experiencing mental health difficulties can be challenging. Below are some ideas to help managers and employees enter into a meaningful dialogue and bring about positive and sustainable change in the workplace.

I’m used to talking about mental health difficulties. Many of my close friends and I have experienced it, while friends that haven’t understand what is a shrinking yet sadly ever-present stigma towards it and, like me, rally against it at every turn. I read publications and work for charities that also seek to remove negative perceptions of mental health difficulties, so I can at times feel so saturated with a positive message that I reel a little when somebody expresses a view that lacks the same degree of empathy or understanding. When it comes to discussing mental health difficulties at work, however, even someone who is well-versed in identifying and talking openly about their experiences may struggle to ask for support, or simply disclose what they are going through. 

Poor mental health costs the economy in England £105 billion each year, with both resulting sickness absence and under-performance at work accounting for almost a fifth of that total. In a climate in which we are as yet unsure as to where the Conservatives’ projected £12bn of welfare cuts will fall, the workplace needs to reform itself in order to accommodate a culture in which employees are not afraid to seek help; help which may take the form of adjustments to your working life, given the uncertainty surrounding access to services. Here is a guide for employees and employers for talking about mental health at work:

If you are an employee:

Consider the kind of changes that would help you – Employers are duty-bound by law to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for someone experiencing mental health difficulties (see below). Before you meet with your employer, consider what kind of adjustments might help you on a day-to-day basis. These changes will vary from person to person and you may not need to take time off in order to look after your mental health; coming to work a little late or taking more regular breaks may suit you. If you’re not sure what kind of changes might help, speak to your employer about adjustments that you could trial, and always arrange a series of follow-up meetings to review their effectiveness. 

Consider how much, when and where you want to disclose – It may seem obvious, but try to arrange a time when you and your employer can talk without being disturbed. This is more his/her responsibility than it is yours, but if your employer offers you ten minutes just before lunchtime, push them for a more reasonable time that is going to allow for maximum scope for putting a realistic plan together. 

Remember, you’re not obliged to disclose every detail of your mental health difficulties, but be honest with your boss in terms of how you are currently managing at work. It may be the case that you do need time off, in which case you are in a position to negotiate a period of time that you have considered prior to the meeting and may have spoken to your GP about. Again, you are not expected to recover in that time and nor should that be expected of you, so be clear with your boss that any period of absence is not tantamount to a healing process. 

Be clear on your rights – Not all employers will invest the same degree of attention and understanding in these conversations, and disclosure will not always elicit a positive response. However, an employer cannot discriminate against you on the grounds of mental illness. The Equality Act – which applies to all employers in the UK – protects people from discrimination because of a disability, and even though you might not consider yourself to be disabled, if problems with your mental health seriously impact your wellbeing over a long period of time, then it may be dealt with as a disability under this law. Advicenow have put together a document called ‘Is That Discrimination?’ to assist workers in distinguishing between forms of unfair treatment. The law also stipulates that employees are required to make reasonable adjustments in order to support employees who are experiencing mental health difficulties. Rethink Mental Illness have put together this guide to which adjustments ought to be considered reasonable. 

If you don’t want to share – Mental health difficulties can be an extremely private and sensitive matter for some people and talking about them with somebody with whom you don’t have much of a rapport can seem daunting. The climate in the workplace is currently such that stress levels – along with targets – are high, and it is increasingly deemed to be ‘the norm’ that employees must operate in line with this culture. This is unacceptable; if you are finding it hard to cope, but don’t feel comfortable discussing your mental health, speak to your employer about reducing stress levels in your work environment. From more open communication to better scope for sharing your workload, there may be changes that can be made to make your working day more manageable. 

If you are an employer:

Create a culture of acceptance – Fostering a workplace culture in which mental health difficulties are not perceived to be a sign of weakness can help reduce feelings of shame an employee experiencing mental health difficulties may feel. Robust policies can serve as a good starting point, the content of which should be explained to employees when they start their contract, as well as visible leaflets on where to seek help. Something as simple as calling people out on any negative comments made about mental health difficulties can encourage employees to come forward, as it gives out the message that they will be taken seriously. 

Exercise discretion – Always allow ample time and space to discuss sensitive matters including an employee’s health. It may not be the case that you can offer a lot of time to somebody on the day that they request it, but be open with the person about your present limitations while assuring them that you will arrange a time for the two of you to talk where you will not be disturbed. 

Do your research – Time to Change, Rethink Mental Illness, Student Minds and Mind have all produced guides on how to talk to somebody about their mental health. You may have known your employee years and have what you consider to be a close relationship with them. Think about the way you talk about mental health. Phrases such as ‘you just don’t seem depressed because you’re so upbeat,’ or ‘well, we’re all a little anxious at the moment’ can stymie any meaningful dialogue and discourage further disclosure. 

Follow things up – There is no one-size-fits-all support plan when it comes to mental health difficulties, so be sure to arrange a series of follow-up meetings with your employee so that, firstly, you can both review the help you have put in place and, secondly, that person knows you have their interests at heart and are genuinely interested in their remaining within the company. Fear of dismissal or negative reactions can deter people from seeking the right help, so an empathic employer can prove to be an invaluable component in someone’s recovery.