By Nicky Chinn, Bipolar UK ambassador

A long time ago the Romans and Greeks thought mental illness was caused by evil spirits. Stigma at its worst and most insidious. When I was young, and unwell, I bought into that. I believed they were right about me. But I don’t believe that anymore. Unfortunately though there are still too many Romans and Greeks in our midst and that is an issue we have to do something about.

I was diagnosed with manic depression - now more appropriately referred to as bipolar disorder, or bipolar - when I was 16. It was an unusually accurate diagnosis back then, from a very good psychiatrist, at a time when a lot of kids with bipolar were being mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia.

My own parents were ashamed

When I became ill, and subsequently diagnosed, it was extremely difficult and painful for me to deal with, and very hard for others to accept. It’s the latter that sets bipolar apart from any other illness.  It may be a cliché, but you can see a broken leg. You might have broken a bone yourself once, so you understand it and relate to the pain. You can empathise. But you can't see bipolar, and you certainly can't empathise, or even get close to imagining what it feels like, if you haven't had it.

I discovered there is very little point in hoping to be understood. The only people who understand it are those who suffer from it. The best I could hope for was acceptance. It’s a lack of acceptance and the presence of ignorance that lead to stigma.

For me, and many others like me, stigma started at the epicentre of my life. At home. There it was ‘pull yourself together’ time. My own parents were ashamed. If it starts at home, there's not too much chance it is going to get a whole lot better out there in the big wide world and it didn’t.

Stigma is still very much a reality today

Although stigma may be less evident than it was when I first became ill it hasn’t gone anywhere and it is as evil as ever.

Nevertheless, I was glad to have the diagnosis. I had an explanation. With the negative attitudes I was encountering I needed to know I wasn’t crazy even if others thought I was. I needed to know I had a genuine medical reason for feeling this terrible. This frightened. This insecure. This depressed. No, I wasn’t crazy, I was ill and that does not merit discrimination. It does not merit being stigmatised.

Time passed and I embarked on the career I had wanted all my life. I was going to write songs. It didn’t go down particularly well because I remember being asked what I was going to for a proper job. This would be alright as a hobby.

What goes up must come down

To everybody’s shock, horror and amazement I became very successful. Bipolar can be, although not for everyone, a very creative condition. In what is known as the hypomanic phase, euphoria and creativity go hand in hand in abundance.

The next phase up from there, full blown mania, I do not recommend. It is a full-blown hell and, of course, Newton’s law of gravity tells us what is coming next. What goes up must come down, he said. And you know what, that guy Newton was no mug. He was right. Depression. At its darkest and most punishing As sure as night follows day. I had to do something about this.

Therapy was life-changing for me

It was time for the next major change in my life.  I am someone who has always been able to take on change, if for no other reason than survival. I decided to go into therapy. It turned out to be a life saver. Emotionally and psychologically, I grew. The more I grew, the more self aware I became. Something called self-confidence started to emerge and self-esteem, previously something I had only heard rumours about, was becoming a reality.

In my experience it is a myth that success automatically brings you self-confidence and self-esteem. I had to go out and find them and to do that I had to work at it. There were no gifts, no free passes. If I wanted a better life, if I wanted to feel good about myself, then I had better go and do it something about it because nobody was going to do it for me it. 

It was only then, during that process of awareness and truth finding, that I began to see things more clearly in every area of my life. I realised that stigma, this thing that I had always been so fearful of, was the territory of small-minded bigots who, in order to escape their own self-loathing, had to cast a net of hatred and bitterness onto others who they had decided were inferior. It made them feel better about themselves, or so they thought. It filled an emotional void but not for long. 

Education is the only way to erase stigma

Stigma is something that has to go, be erased. But it can't be done by force or with anger. It can only be done with education. In that respect it is like the whole subject of bipolar. It needs to be put out there, desensitised, and seen for what it is. Bipolar is a condition that leads to illness.

Stigma is an attack on those who find it difficult to defend themselves. It can do so much harm and cause so much fear. it stops people from getting the help they need because they can’t talk about bipolar or admit to it. It is always based on ignorance and often on cowardice.

There are two ways to educate. Talk about it or write about it. I have no problem with having bipolar. No shame. So I am a walking advert for it. And I am saying to the purveyors of stigma and negativity I am no different from you and you are no different from me. Give me ten minutes and I will show you how wrong you are about me and about bipolar.

That is what I would love everybody to do. The odds are you know somebody who has a less than favourable view of bipolar. Talk to them. Educate them and help them see the error of their ways. Tell people about Bipolar UK’s 20-minute eLearning course. Broadcast it. We need that so we need you.

For me bipolar is a privilege. It has made me who I am. It has given me a sense of empathy and compassion for others I would not have otherwise had. It has enhanced my talent and helped me give music to the world that has in turn made the world smile - and on occasions dance.


Last updated: 22 February 2023