I know this sounds terribly morbid but I spent the last rainy Saturday night watching Stephen Fry‘s The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. It wasn’t because I was at the end of my tatters and considered getting jiggy with a bottle of gasoline and some matches (I wasn’t). It wasn’t because I have no life (well… I don’t, but that is another story for another day). It wasn’t because I was hit with painful nostalgia and forlorn for loved ones lost and saved from manic depression. Strangely enough, it wasn’t even because of my voyeuristic tendencies when it comes to Stephen Fry. I was just… well… curious.
Growing up with a psychiatrist father meant that mental illnesses had always played a very real part in our lives. We lived through our father’s triumphs and despairs which in turn mirrored that of his patients and their families. While we did not understand the stigmatism attached to mental illnesses and its caring profession at first, we soon learnt from school bullies that it was better to just call our father a ‘doctor’ rather than a ‘psychiatrist’. This is the 80s and we are talking southern Taiwan.
In some respects, time changes very little.
Broadly speaking, most would not consider mental illness an acceptable dinner topic. I know. I have tried it on a few times. People want to hear uplifting stories over the dinner table. So I have been told. I for one don’t know what the fuss is about. If we can discuss current events including horrific crimes and wars then what is the harm in talking about the loons?
Mental illness is a funny business. There are usually no physical signs of trauma which makes it unconvincing from the word ‘go’. What is clinical and what is sub-clinical is often not clear-cut. Put it this way, take depression and general down-ness: there will be instances where it is unclear whether the person needs Zoloft or a kick up the arse.
This compounded with the perception that people who are merely associated with the mentally ill could be in harm’s way. Lets take cancer. It is a very individualised disease. The person who gets cancer is the person who suffers physical consequences brought about directly by the cancer. Not always so for mental illnesses. Some sufferers of mental illnesses not only pose a physical threat to themselves but also others around them.
True enough, the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, as are many other sister organisations around the world I am sure, is doing a great job putting recognisiable faces on mental illnesses in an attempt to education, demystify and destigmatise. Their media campaign have resulted in many a two minute TV commercials portraying camaraderie, positivity and faith in fellow human beings.
Stephen Fry’s two part doco took this a step further.
As someone who had witnessed loved ones going through mental illnesses including manic depression, I am touched that he and his friends would come out in the open and put their names to something many would consider unspeakable. What is even more pleasing is that I find the whole thing uplifting. The people featured in the documentary all had their share of heart-breaks but all of them seemed to come from a common ground of – how do I turn my heart ache into something empowering and positive?
The documentary features some interviews of people who are diagnosed with manic depression. They were all asked by Stephen Fry that if there is a magic button they could press that would make their illness go away completely whether they would press that button. All but one said no.
I admire that.