Today it’s my brother’s birthday. He would’ve been 35 years old, but instead of celebrating I’m remembering a life that came to an end far too soon. This week it’s Mental Health Awareness Week and to mark his day I want to share his story. Because mental illness is real. It’s more than a hashtag, a like or a share. It’s more than a week of raising awareness. But we have to start somewhere...

It wasn’t until after I lost my brother to suicide that I discovered he had been recently diagnosed with bipolar. Until this point, I thought I had lost my brother to a lifelong battle with depression. It’s a strange thing to try and rationalise something when you have understood it to be one way for so long. Only to find out that in fact it is something quite different. And yet, with the clarity of understanding it seems so obvious, you wonder how you didn’t see it all along.

My understanding, until losing him 8 years ago, was that my brother for much of his adult life had struggled to cope with depression – an illness, I believed ultimately took his life. I’m only learning now that bipolar is easily confused with depression because it can include depressive episodes. 

My brother made the first attempt to end his life when he was 16 years old and that’s my first real memory of how life for him and us (his family) changed course. As children we were very close but as young adults, he was angry and impulsive, and we grew apart. Growing up I wasn’t familiar with the term bipolar and whilst I had heard of manic depression, I can’t say, at 18 years old myself, I really understood what it was. 

In the wake of what happened I threw myself into understanding the condition and I've been blown away by the number of people who have had their lives affected by it. I've heard and learned from people who have shared their own individual experiences of living with bipolar and from family and friends of people who have the condition. Bipolar is a complex and varied condition and the way it affects each individual and manifests itself means the understanding of what the condition is, is still sadly limited. I’ve recently learned for example that depending on the way you experience different bipolar moods and symptoms, and how severely they affect you, your doctor may diagnose you with a particular type of bipolar disorder. The devastatingly sad thing though is that it can take an average of 9 years for someone to receive a bipolar diagnosis. For some it can be longer and for most that journey means years of misdiagnosis. For Kev it took 11 years before he received his diagnosis of bipolar 2 and complex PTSD. He was sectioned the year before he was diagnosed and it was only a matter of months after that he completed suicide – unable to see how he could continue to live the life he had for the rest of his life. He hadn’t heard of Bipolar UK and he didn’t receive the adequate support following his diagnosis. Still today 60% of people living with bipolar get no treatment or support for the condition. In a world where we send ‘thoughts and prayers’ and share hashtags saying #bekind, we are still so very ignorant about what it REALLY means to live with a mental health condition. 

Sadly, my ignorance of how bipolar can manifest itself meant that I never stepped back and tried to find out why he behaved the way he did. Gutted feels like a pitiful word to describe how I feel that I will never be able to know and understand him for the person he was. To truly understand what was going on for him and tell him that despite all that happened, I adored him, he just occurred for me in a way I couldn't deal with. 

His outbursts of anger, his often inflated self-esteem, his impulsive/excessive spending, the attention seeking, suicidal ideation, the sleepless nights and paranoia – I just didn’t understand it for what it was. 

I learned too late, and all too painfully, that bipolar can manifest itself like this. He wasn’t an ‘angry young man’, he didn’t need to ‘snap out of it’ and he didn’t need to ‘stop being so selfish’. He needed love, understanding, education, time and support. 

They say you can measure the mark of a man on the day that he dies in the mixture of memories and wreckage he leaves behind. Well my little brother was a formidable young man who achieved so much in his short life. The magnitude of loss and grief is immeasurable. BUT... my resounding response to this is that there is a need for real communication and understanding – it’s essential if we are ever going to overcome stigma and discrimination and help properly change attitudes towards mental health. 

I want people to know about Bipolar UK, about the truly amazing work they do (with no government funding). I want people to know about the services they offer. The peer support line that offers a call-back service, the online eCommunity that supports those affected by bipolar 24hrs a day. The website, the Chatbot, the peer support groups and the research studies and resources available information leaflets

I want people to have a better understanding of the condition and have compassion for those who live with it. And I want people to know that Bipolar UK supports not just those with a bipolar diagnosis but everyone affected by bipolar – including family and friends.

1 in 50 people in the UK have a bipolar diagnosis. Bipolar is one of the UK’s commonest long-term conditions with almost as many people living with bipolar as cancer (2.4%). It is more than twice as common as dementia, epilepsy and autism (0.8%). Despite this, it takes an average of 9 years to get a correct diagnosis – there is no national register and the Quality Outcomes Framework, which judges GP performance, groups bipolar with schizophrenia and psychosis, making meaningful assessments of referral rates impossible. Bipolar increases an individual’s risk of suicide by up to 20 times and with approximately 3 people a day who have bipolar ending their life, I’m keen to see this shocking and heartbreakingly sad statistic change.

Increased awareness is one of the most important things that can be done to counter the stigma/stereotypes. It’s also vitally important that those working in mental health receive the education and support needed.