This past week Leah Charles-King moderated a session on tackling mental health stigma in the black community as part of the largest online gathering of those living with bipolar disorder. The video is now available.

In the past I once believed mental illness was reserved for a certain type of person. Not me that’s for sure. I thought bipolar was exclusively the worst type of mental illness one could get, alongside schizophrenia. I believed people with these conditions all had a family history of it, were from an abusive background, or it was induced by drugs and alcohol.

I’ve had over 30 years experience of media and the entertainment industry as a music artist, TV and radio presenter, producer, live host and public speaker. As one third of the girl band ‘Kleshay’ signed to Sony Music, we enjoyed two UK chart singles as well as a successful arena tour as supporting act for Lionel Richie. Mental ill health was foreign to me, not a world I was ever mixing with or use to at all.

When I have previously thought of bipolar disorder, I immediately thought of individuals I’d seen talking to themselves on the street or what the media told me. I believed the “men in white coats” would eventually take them away to a psychiatric hospital because they were dangerous people.

So the last thing in the world I could ever imagine was being diagnosed with bipolar disorder myself. I was mortified. I believed my diagnosis would somehow change me into “an evil and horrible person” and I’d end up sectioned in hospital. 

Those were some of the myths based on stigma that I believed about bipolar and mental health. I now know it could not be further from the truth. Mental illness, namely Bipolar, is layered and quite frankly can affect anyone.

The Black community have a long history of stigma surrounding mental health. From denial that poor mental health exists, to shunning those who struggle with it, our ways in which we have coped with mental health issues has been woeful. This has not been helped by the feeling that organisations set up to assist those in need do not look after our interests and are not geared towards us.

Stats surrounding mental health have not helped to encourage trust either. Detention rates under the Mental Health Act during 2017 / 18 were four times higher for people in the Black or Black British group than those in thewhite group. In addition, the risk of psychosis in Black Caribbean groups is estimated to be nearly seven times higher than in the white population. 

Given our needs for care and support are fairly acute we need to act to remedy the way we deal with mental health issues as a matter of urgency.

I was misdiagnosed with depression first of all many years ago, and began antidepressants. But after a couple of years, I noticed a massive shift in my behaviour. I’d become super anxious and impulsive with manic behaviour. I’d go from being suicidally low to euphorically high. My family and friends just thought I was moody, and it was part of my personality. It was confusing because I was the life and soul of the party but could easily become irritable and lash out with my words.

I was diagnosed correctly with bipolar 8 years ago and it’s been the hardest journey. However, I’m happy to say that with the correct diagnosis alongside medication and therapy, it led me to get the help I desperately needed and deserved. 

Although I am still learning to fully understand my condition, I kept my diagnosis a secret in fear of what others would think of me. I was embarrassed and fearful. I also thought it would affect my career and work prospects. Yet, another myth. Again, stigma playing its hand and rearing its ugly head.

Last year I spoke publicly on social media for the first time about living with bipolar and it’s been the most liberating thing I've done throughout my entire rehabilitation so far. 

Since learning to accept my mental illness and speaking boldly about it I feel empowered and free. Hiding it due to my embarrassment was such a heavy burden to carry. Now that I'm able to speak about it openly I feel a sense of purpose because I realise it’s a positive leap forward. Not only is it helping my recovery but the representation I offer is also helping others like me to speak out too. 

Normalising conversations around mental health is an incremental step towards eroding stigma, equipping ourselves with the maturity this dialogue needs but more importantly sharing how we can help each other and signpost towards the help that’s available out there. 

Bipolar UK for example, an organisation I am now an ambassador for, was an entity that I had not heard of in great detail. The help support and advice is free and available via www.bipolaruk.org, but wider take up especially from the Black community needs work. 

In a strange way I feel proud to be bipolar and understand that despite its ups and downs it’s possible to live with it successfully. There’s life after diagnosis but first let’s learn from our history led by stigma to prepare for our future.

 

 

Love and light,

 

Leah Charles-King