The importance of normalising mental health

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

12 May 2017

12 May 2017 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

Today, one in four people are, or will be, affected by a mental health problem in their lifetime. Worldwide, some 51 million people – almost the population of England (53 million) – are currently living with bipolar disorder, a condition that can cause extreme mood swings. When conditions are this widespread, they cannot be ignored by the world of business. 

While mental health is moving slowly to the forefront of people’s hearts and minds, there is still a long way to go in terms of tackling and speaking freely about mental health conditions, particularly in the workplace. Some people are in denial about their illness, while others anticipate judgement from their peers and fear the resulting stigma. 

Byron Vincent is a writer and performer who is very open about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the effects of his condition on both his work and personal life (see box, below). He believes that people in the public eye opening up about their experiences of mental illness help normalise conditions and challenge assumptions. 

“Honest and emotive autobiographical stories from people who have lived experience is the best way to combat stigma,” he says. “I’ve woken up in many a hospital, and could have resigned myself to a life. of being told when to eat and sleep on a psychiatric ward. I needed more from my life; resisting a life of institutionalisation can be a struggle, it’s harder still to find a positive and useful role in the world, but it’s important to me to be more than just a diagnosis. I don’t want to be defeated by it."

Bipolar: Byrons experiences

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, can cause extreme mood swings, including manic episodes, during which people act out of character. Vincent compares his manic episodes to being drunk, explaining that he’ll do unpredictable things such as going on shopping sprees; once he brought several homeless people back to his house. “Being mentally ill is expensive, I’ve rendered myself broke before,” he explains. The next stage is depression, which he likens to the hangover stage, and which can take days or weeks to overcome. Vincent explains that these episodes seriously disrupt his life – but can occur months or years apart.

The effects of bipolar

Vincent labels his own upbringing ‘tumultuous’ involving bouts of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and violence, which led to his diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was a whole two decades later that he discovered he had bipolar disorder, recalling: “I wasn’t ever directly told, it came up in a psychiatric report, when the doctor said ‘oh, you’re bipolar’; it was news to me.” 

In 2011, Vincent tried to take his own life during a bout of severe depression. He had written a suicide note on his Facebook page. His friends saw this and instantly went to his house, kicking down his door and saving his life. This episode prompted Vincent to ‘go public’ about his diagnosis, opening up to friends and family about his illness. “It was my year of reckoning,” he reveals. “I didn’t want to be afraid of judgement any more.” 

"When did imperfection become unacceptable?"

Judgements and honesty

Over the years, Vincent has felt very judged by those around him, as a result of his condition, which is often misunderstood: “People have assumed I’m dangerous – even people I believed knew me better – it’s upsetting. But it’s not entirely fair to blame people for their prejudices when there’s so much negative stereotyping around mental health,” he acknowledges. 

Vincent is clear that perceptions of people with mental illness need to change, and calls for greater empathy. “What situation isn’t improved by being empathetic?’ he asks. “If you saw someone who had just had a car crash staggering around the road, dazed and confused, your instinct wouldn’t be fear, it would likely be compassion. You’d probably want to help. There’s no reason those same sensibilities couldn’t be applied to people with mental health problems.” 

He believes social media is a portal of judgement, which forces people to try to exude perfection. “We are beautiful on Instagram, hilarious on Twitter and profound on Facebook because we can portray an edited version of ourselves – but when did imperfection become unacceptable?” he asks.

Breaking the stigma

According to mental health charity Time To Change, nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, which often discourages them from reaching out for support. 

Vincent believes this perception is compounded by the media. “More often than not, whenever mental illness is referenced in the media or films, it’s sensationalised – because the mundane isn’t interesting,” he says, adding that this helps instil a fear of mental illness into society. 

Yet the media could actually help the cause. “People respond to a compelling narrative,” says Vincent. “That’s why we cry when someone in our favourite movie or soap opera dies – yet step over someone sleeping in a doorway and barely give it a second thought. The media are the ultimate storytellers, if we could harness that narrative power and use it to engender understanding, rather than focusing on misrepresentative sensationalism, we’d all be in a much healthier place.” 

Making the whole subject less formal helps break down barriers, argues Vincent. “Comedy is a great way of addressing uncomfortable subjects,” he says. “As soon as people can relate to a difficult situation, the taboo fades and becomes less daunting for all."

"Mental illness doesnt discount a person from being intelligent"

Mental health at work

As a public speaker and performer, Vincent’s livelihood depends heavily on being able to perform under pressure. However, his condition has, in the past, led employers to doubt his employability. 

“Employers take a risk by taking me on,” he admits. “But when I‘m open and honest about my condition and how it affects me, I’d say 95% of the time I get a positive reaction, which is heartening.” 

Being able to build this trust with employers is a huge element in Vincent’s life, and something he has spent years building. For anyone suffering with symptoms of mental illness, from anxiety to bipolar disorder, he emphasises the importance of an effective support network. 
“Sometimes it’s hard to talk about your issues as, sadly, many workplaces aren’t set up for this common and costly phenomenon,” he says. “But being open might even abate symptoms. It can feel like the hardest thing in the world, but be brave enough to be honest and bold enough to seek help,” he urges. 

It’s clear more needs to be done to educate employers around supporting those with mental health issues. The Mental Health at Work 2016 report found 76% of line managers believe they are responsible for employee wellbeing; however only 22% have received training in this area. 

In Vincent’s view, leaders must be compassionate and informed; he acknowledges that he has a duty to help inform them. He would like to see people who have severe mental health illnesses issued with contracts stating what they can, and cannot do in the workplace: “It would be a real shame if any leader reading this now doesn’t see the value in that. Mental illness doesn’t discount a person from being intelligent or hard working or creative or gifted, sometimes we just need a little support and understanding.”

Byron Vincent

Byron is known predominantly for his theatre and spoken word performances and his work on BBC Radio 4. Byron has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and is a campaigner for issues around mental health and poverty; he is also an ambassador for the mental health charity Rethink.