Thursday 23 July 2015

You don't buy me flowers

A large part of the Victoria Derbyshire mental health debate ( ) centred on the issue of "stigma".  It's an often-used term.  We must reduce it!  But what does mental illness stigma mean in practice?

For me, the stigma of mental illness (and particularly the stigma of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital) meant that I spent the best part of three months in said hospital, with only one single visit from a friend, no get well soon cards, no grapes, no flowers.

My friends would not have been unkind or unthinking.  Far from it.  No, they were frightened and embarrassed.  Fearful of how I would react to them knowing I was so ill, and too uncomfortable to acknowledge my madness.  There is a hush around mental illness: Kathryn is finding motherhood difficult.  Kathryn needs a rest.  Kathryn is still recovering from a traumatic birth.  Kathryn is getting some help.

The contrast to a physical illness is clear.  If I had been in hospital with a broken leg or appendicitis then my friends would have been told clearly what I was suffering from, how I was being treated, and my prognosis.

I don't blame my friends at all.  I realise now that they were waiting for my permission to talk about it.  Six months to the day since my admission to hospital I posted the following public message on Facebook:
"This is a long one... Six months ago today I was committed to a psychiatric hospital. I had lost my mind to an illness I had never heard of called postpartum psychosis. The symptoms were the scariest thing I have ever experienced, and even scarier for my family to witness. What should have been the happiest time of our lives, as a new family, turned into a waking nightmare. At various points over the subsequent days and weeks I thought I was going to be burned alive, locked in a room and never let out, in constant pain. I didn't believe I had a family or even that my son had been born.  At one point I even questioned whether the universe itself existed or whether it was just me, in a locked room, alone and in pain for all eternity.

Anyway, with the dedicated care of some amazing doctors and nurses, and with an incredible family who stood by me, I beat the psychosis and reemerged my old self again. But with the best gift I could ever have, my wonderful son.  I was lucky, many others who experience PP are not. Look out for some fundraising activities from me in the future and and thanks for reading. If you are wondering what makes me share such personal info on Facebook, it is to stick two fingers up to mental health stigma and discrimination. It can happen to us all. "

My iPhone came alive as soon as I posted that, pinging with messages of support from family and friends.  They thought I was brave, strong, inspirational even.  Many hadn't known why exactly I had been AWOL after The Boy's birth, so they learnt something new about postpartum psychosis.  I was so touched by everyone's support, but at the same time a little sad that that support had to wait until I had spoken up.  Because many psychiatric patients never speak up, and live out their illnesses alone and in shame.

There is very little you can do or say to make matters worse for a severely mentally ill friend or family member.  But there are a hell of a lot of things you can do and say to make things better.  Start with "Hello".  "When can I visit?" "Do you need some clean socks?" "Shall I bring you an M&S sandwich?"  You get the idea!

I've had some feedback on the above.  There are a few things I should mention here, which I did not realise at the time (being psychotic):
- for the first month or more of my admission, the senior doctors advised against any visitors other than The Husband and occasional visits from close family (my parents).  Other visits were thought to trigger more stress and anxiety.
- a really close pair of friends did attempt to visit earlier on in my stay, but were put off (I didn't realise this at the time).  They did successfully visit later on, when I'd already had some home leave.
- the physical lay out and facilities of the ward were not conducive to successful visits.  My room was too small for visitors, and the communal areas were often noisy and, as you'd expect, full of other patients with their own needs and issues.

One friend (a former mental health nurse herself) made the great point that hospitals (and families) should consider diarising events for patients who are too ill to receive visitors or have much knowledge of what is going on at the time.  This could include photos, notes from friends, and so on.  I think this is a brilliant idea!

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