Louise Gillett: Why mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of
Louise Gillett runs a creative writing group in Dorset for the charity Rethink Mental Illness. In her book, Surviving Schizophrenia: A Memoir, Louise told how she found writing a very therapeutic process and would like to help others benefit in the same way. Here, she tells how it felt to live with schizophrenia, and how it has affected her life and her experiences...
The truth is that I have had no symptoms of mental illness and taken no mental health medication for more than ten years.
I had three episodes of psychosis six years apart, the first when I was just 19 years old. Psychosis is a scary-sounding word, but one which means simply “serious disturbance of the thoughts”. I was very confused and delusional when I was first psychotic. I was convinced that I was about to die, or that I was dead already. I was sure that I was being followed and spied upon. I could neither sleep nor eat, or communicate with any degree of coherence.
I was sectioned and taken to a mental hospital where I was forcibly given medication. I hated being hospitalised, but I left after about three months, symptom-free, and managed to stop taking psychiatric drugs within a year. I was still very anxious though – which is, I think, why I eventually broke down and was sectioned again, twice over the next 12-year period.
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However, since the birth of my children – the eldest is now 12 – I have fully recovered. I do not hear voices, or suffer hallucinations, or have any other symptoms that are associated with mental ill health. I have even finally beaten my anxiety, with the help of cognitive behavioural therapy.
I am in fact, to all intents and purposes, an ordinary middle-class mother. Until recently, the only thing that marked me out from the other stay-at-home mums at the local schools, was that I have four children, slightly more than the average number. Nobody knew about the diagnosis, and there was no reason why they should.
In fact, times have changed, medical knowledge has improved and mental health treatment and diagnostic criteria have similarly moved on. If I’d had those breakdowns in modern times I might not even be given the label of schizophrenia. Life circumstances – for example the fact that I’d had a difficult childhood, or that I smoked cannabis at the time when I became ill – are more likely to be taken into account now, and psychiatrists are less likely to give such an extreme diagnosis, which they recognise affects people’s perceptions of themselves, and reduces their ability to cope with life.
Schizophrenia is supposed to be an illness that people do not recover from, and therefore I am officially supposed to be simply “in remission”. However, I am confident that I am no more (or not much more) at risk of mental ill health than any other member of the public, especially since I have dealt with the anxiety that made me susceptible to breakdown. I do, of course, take reasonable precautions with my health, as everybody should. I monitor my stress levels, make sure I sleep well, eat healthily, exercise and so on.
I am glad that, in middle age, I finally realised that my mental health history was nothing to be ashamed of and that by writing and speaking about it I could help others to have hope for their own futures. Apart from my book, I write a mental health blog, “Schizophrenia at the Schoolgate” and last October I was invited to Newcastle University to speak to psychology staff and students about my experiences. I am also due to talk to nursing students at Bournemouth University in the coming months.
The worst thing about schizophrenia, by far, is the stigma. There is such shame associated with this diagnosis, and it is so unfair. People batting cancer, for example, do not have to worry about what others think of them – the word schizophrenia, in contrast, conjures up fear in both the patient and the observer, and the fear and shame stand as a barrier to recovery.
In my opinion the quickest way to help would be to change the name of the illness. Many other countries, such as Japan and New Zealand, have already recognised this fact and taken this step, and it has revolutionised treatment there.
This diagnosis negates hope, and if it was abolished or changed to something less damaging – such as “thought disorder” – people could get on with the business of recovery without being held back by the shame and stigma of the word itself. It would be a quick and easy change to make in the diagnostic manuals, and a very humane one. I hope it happens soon.
The writing group
The national charity Rethink Mental Illness has teamed up with Louise to open a writing group in Dorset.
The group, which was launched on March 1, is open to anyone, but the organisers are particularly encouraging people with mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to join. The sessions aim to give people in the area the chance to improve their writing skills and to talk about their mental health.
Louise, who is running the workshop for Rethink Mental Illness, said: “I find writing a very therapeutic activity and I’m committed to helping others with their writing skills. This group’s open to anyone; we particularly welcome people who might be dealing with emotional distress of any sort.
“Mental health problems are very common. One in four people, at some point in their lives, will experience emotional distress manifesting as mental illness. Due to the stigma which still surrounds mental illness, many people find it hard to speak openly about the struggles they’re facing. This can be an isolating experience, which is not helpful to their recovery. Speaking and writing about the issues are both extremely helpful.
“This group will be informal, fun and suitable for beginners and more experienced writers. It will provide a sympathetic, non-judgmental space where people can share their thoughts and feelings and socialise while learning a new skill.”
The groups are being held weekly on Friday afternoons in Mudeford, Christchurch, Dorset. The cost is £2 per session. For more details contact Louise on 07923 569 273 or at email@example.com
Rethink Mental Illness is a charity that believes a better life is possible for people affected by mental illness
It runs services and support groups that aim to challenge attitudes about mental illness
It directly supports almost 60,000 people every year across England
For more information about the charity, see www.rethink.org