My journey has (like my illness) been one of very mixed experiences - I have, like the majority of the 1 in 4 out there, been at the receiving end of stigma and prejudice - but I also hope that my story can give hope to others that things are changing.
I am incredibly lucky to have received outstanding understanding and support at some of the most crucial times in my life, when I was very much "on the edge". It is so important that this becomes the norm rather than the exception and that is why I am sharing my experiences here.
I have struggled with mental health issues ever since my early teens and for me, receiving a diagnosis has actually helped (most of the time!) to reduce the amount of prejudice I have faced. As a teenager I struggled to have my problems recognised. It took me 5 years to be put on medication and referred to a counsellor, to help me battle bouts of depression. I think for teenagers it can be so hard to be heard - it's also hard for healthcare professionals to identify these individuals as there is less evidence available on the management of mental health conditions in this age group. Nonetheless thanks to one fantastic doctor in my surgery I passed my A levels and got into university - I don't believe that this would have happened without her.
Several years passed and my behaviour and mood became more and more unpredictable - but frequently I was oblivious to this. It was only when I started being called into the office at work that I realised something wasn't right. Again I visited several different doctors but none of them could understand what was wrong - I simply needed to "learn to behave myself" and "be more professional".
I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder 2 years ago. I thought this would be the end of my problems and in some ways it has been a massive relief. When I received my diagnosis, my line manager at the hospital where I worked was incredible. She arranged extra time off for my appointments and asked somebody to cover my on-call for me while my medication was being titrated. At no point was my ability as a professional called into question - something which I had been particularly concerned about because there is so much stigma out there.
It hasn't all been a walk in the park though. I was visiting a women's health clinic about 18 months ago and the consultant was taking a history from me. As soon as the word "bipolar" came out of my mouth the consultant's entire attitude changed towards me - she asked if I was on lithium, and when I replied "no" she suggested that I "strongly consider it, for the sake of my sexual health". I was incredibly disappointed not only in her assumption that I had a poor attitude towards sexual health, but also that the only treatment available to me was lithium and that all bipolar people should be on it.
It is hard for some people who have been brought up and conditioned into having stigmatised thoughts about those with mental health conditions to change overnight. However when I tell people about my condition, 9 times out of 10 they say "but you don't seem like you have bipolar disorder". I challenge those people to define what someone with this condition is "like". We are individuals just the same as anyone else - and I am so grateful now that people around me can see this - not a disease, a mood, or behaviour. I only wish this could be the same for all of the 1 in 4 - and we're getting there, slowly.
Have you experienced hurtful or disappointing assumptions? Or perhaps a friend or family member with mental health problems has helped you understand these issues better? Post your comments below!