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Brother, can you spare a dime?

September 12, 2010

I can still remember clearly that it was a warm and sunny day. I had just come in from getting lunch, and sat at my desk to eat, when I noticed that the heel of my shoes was coming off. At that moment, the battery of my iPod died.

My heel was broken. My iPod was no longer working. My life was therefore a failure, and I burst into tears. That was when I realised I had a problem, and that I needed help.

In the grand scheme of things, wardrobe and mechanical malfunctions are no cause for despair. But then again you are dealing with someone who only two weeks ago felt that his whole life was useless because his new phone didn’t arrive on time. That’s what depression does to you.

I am mentally ill. That’s a tough admission to make privately, let alone publicly. Mentally ill people are stereotyped as one of two types: either the incoherent and incompetent person in the straitjacket, or the violent and unpredictable psychotic killer. Hence why it is so difficult to admit to being mentally ill. But that’s what I am.

I’ve been mentally ill since about the age of 17. In 15 years, I’ve been through three different types of counselling, psychiatric treatment and medication.

I’ve spoken before about my depression. At the time I queried whether depression was more prevalent amongst creative “types”, or whether it was simply better reported. I’m not the first writer to talk openly about my mental illness, I’m not even the first writer on Write Anything to do so, as this post from 2006 will show.

The contention that creative types are more prone to mental illness has been called the “Sylvia Plath effect”. The psychologist who coined the term, Dr James Kaufman, originally applied it only to female poets, whom Dr Kaufman found to be more prone to mental illness than any other profession. In a subsequent study Dr Kaufman found that creative writers as a whole (and especially female poets) are liable to mental illness.

Such studies are not without controversy; one suggested reason for the higher proportion of mentally ill people within the arts is the belief that it is more “acceptable” in the arts to be mentally ill, and so there are less barriers to success in this field than in others. Whilst I can’t say if that’s true, it certainly appears to me easier to be open about mental illness within the arts than in business, or sport for example.

But why tell you all this? For the simple reason that I am here today, in spite of my problems. I am doing well. I’m not cured, I don’t even think there is such a thing as a cure, but I am getting through thanks to family, friends, and especially thanks to my GP, my psychotherapist, several counsellors, and a score of other mental health professionals who helped me when I needed it most.

But it took me a long time to ask for help, a long time ignoring my problems out of fear about how people react to a “mental”. And because of that stigma, because of that fear which held me back from getting help earlier, I almost didn’t make it.

The stigma about mental illness is the reason why in the UK, the leading cause of death amongst men aged 15 to 34 is suicide.

The stigma about mental illness is the reason that although one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their life, and at any given time one in six of us will be experiencing a mental health problem, many will not seek help until it is too late.

The stigma about mental illness is the reason that one in eight people would not want to live next door to someone mentally ill, and one third of people think that someone with a mental illness should not have the same rights to employment as others.

The stigma about mental illness is the reason that whilst incidents of discrimination based on sexuality, ethnicity and gender are decreasing, incidents of discrimination against those with mental health problems are increasing. In fact, out of all people with long-term health conditions, those with mental health problems are the least likely to find work, to be in steady relationships, to live in decent housing, or to be socially included by mainstream society.

Enough is enough. It is time to change.

10 October 2010 is World Mental Health Day, and on that day I will be running the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon to raise funds for Mind, one of the leading mental health charities in Britain. Mind is a founding member of the Time to Change campaign, which aims to change attitudes about mental health, and eliminate the stigma and discrimination encountered by the mentally ill.

I’m asking you, if you feel you can, to make a donation towards my fundraising target. Not for myself, but for the person I could have been, someone who didn’t know where to turn, someone who couldn’t talk about it, and ultimately someone who couldn’t cope. I’m asking you to make a small donation, if you can afford it, to help Mind in its work to reach out to those who need help, and to educate others about the myths and realities of mental health.

If you would like to sponsor me, then please visit my sponsorship page and make your pledge. If you are UK resident for tax purposes, then please consider making a Gift Aid declaration, which will allow Mind to reclaim the tax on your donation from the Government, which amounts to an extra 28p in every pound.

Thank you

Paul will return to being sarcastic, funny and irreverent next week. This week it’s something close to his heart.
  1. September 12, 2010 5:40 pm

    Hi Paul!

    Thank you for this post. I battle depression, too. I have to be extemely careful over what I watch on TV or which movies I see or even which books I read. Simply hearing downer stuff sends me spinning into “the pit” all over again. Writing helps me deal with it all.

    I’ve never hidden my illness from anyone but I also don’t promote it because I’ve learned that some people simply don’t (or won’t) understand. One ex-employer used to make jokes about it/me to the other employees. It shouldn’t be that way.

    Thank you, again, for writing so eloquently about it. If more people speak up, perhaps it will just be viewed with the same emotion as asthma.

  2. September 13, 2010 5:47 am

    Thanks for sharing this publicly Paul. Its a huge step …..and I don’t mean that in a faffy pycho babble way.

    You being courageous enough to write about this and being passionate enough about it to try and make a difference through your fundraising run humbles the rest of us into silence.

  3. Nic permalink
    September 13, 2010 5:57 am

    I agree — thank you for sharing. I too suffer from mental illness: phobias that lead to depressive moments. I too am a fellow writer and artist.

    I think there is some truth to creatives being more prone. I haven’t heard of Sylvia Plath effect before, but I’ll be googling straight after this. I think we are more prone because to do what ‘we do’ we need to open ourselves emotionally, mentally and spiritually more than others. In doing so, we make ourselves more vulnerable to external and internal dis-ease.

    I wish you all the best for the marathon

  4. September 13, 2010 7:11 am

    Thank you for having the courage to speak about what many of us still keep under wraps. Good fortune with the marathon!

  5. September 13, 2010 7:03 pm

    Thanks for being so transparent and authentic, Paul.

  6. September 18, 2010 2:44 pm

    I cycle through this sort of thing regularly and it sucks. I wonder at times about bipolar(it has been suggested by professionals) but don’t feel it would be worth it yet to chase.
    writing is about the only thing that either makes sense of it or which gives any sort of relief.
    thank you.

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