Bipolar UK ambassador Nicky Chinn explains stigma and how it has impacted his mental health as he navigates his day to day life.

The stigma of bipolar disorder has hung  over my head like the sword of Damocles for much of my adult life.  I'm not saying I encountered it every day. I didn’t. But on the number of occasions I did. The sense of inadequacy hurt. The wounds took a long time to heal. The scars bore witness to the bigotry.  Those who live with bipolar have encountered stigma often enough to know how cruel and belittling it can be. It hides like a snake in the long grass ready to strike, spreading its poison whenever and wherever it can. There will always be people who have narrow-minded views on mental health. There will always be people who give those views a voice. There will always be people who listen to that voice.

Insane is described in the dictionary as ‘in a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behaviour or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.’ There have been times when I was very unwell that some people thought that I had fallen into that category. I hadn't.  It was stigma. Alternatively the definition of sane is  ‘someone of sound mind not mentally ill.’ I never doubted that I was sane. The proponents of stigma would have me think otherwise.

Do not let bipolar hijack self-belief and confidence

I was diagnosed at sixteen and my parents made it very clear how they felt. They were  totally unable to accept it. I had little chance to come to terms with my illness. I felt completely excluded and isolated. Stigma has the power to separate families and, in this instance, encountering it in my own home, it did. I needed support. I needed to be told bipolar was a genetic condition, not a handicap. I needed to be told it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t told anything.

Because of the negative and unsettling atmosphere I grew up in, for a long time I felt I didn’t fit in. I would continually try to justify myself and my illness. That’s what stigma does. I was trying too hard.  I was yet to work out that what other people thought of me was never going to have a significant impact on my life. When I realised that, it was like being set free from prison. Since then, whenever I have encountered prejudice I haven't let it hijack the self-belief and confidence it had taken me so long to build. My self-worth meant far more to me than that.

So looking at the journey I had taken up until now what did I think of me? That was a very  important question. What were my foundations built on? Had I managed to deal with the consequences of stigma? The consequences of bipolar? The response was what I had hoped it would be. What I wanted it to be. When I looked in the mirror of my life I saw the reflection of someone who had managed himself and his bipolar disorder extremely well.  Someone who had made a success of his life. I'm a songwriter and have brought pleasure to millions. Most important of all I saw someone I liked. Someone I valued. Someone as sane as the next man. However sane the next man may be!

Bipolar and stigma are closely interlinked

My feelings around stigma have allowed me to understand my bipolar is nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact the opposite. One of the singularly most important discoveries of my life. Whether, if I’d had a choice, I would have chosen it I will never know but I'm glad I have it. It’s a large part of my genetic makeup. Having lived with it for so long it’s the heart of me, the most familiar part of me and in some ways it’s the best part. I would never have envisaged feeling bipolar was a gift. When I'm very high or very low it certainly hasn’t felt like one, but it has brought me creativity, empathy, self-awareness and lessons in self-preservation. All have enhanced my life considerably.

Bipolar and stigma have regrettably become so closely interlinked is because ignorance and intolerance will always thrive where they have an audience. It may not seem as prevalent as it was but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Stigma has to be tackled. It is a big task.  Ultimately it might even be an impossible one but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be undertaken.  If there is just one less person being persecuted every day that’s a success.

The battle against the stigma of bipolar and mental illness is ongoing. To their great credit the royal family, in the shape of Will and Kate, have committed themselves to help change the conversation on mental health. Change the ill-conceived attitudes still held by so many. They are very aware of the presence of stigma and the harm it can do. The fear it causes. That it stops people from getting the help they need because they can’t talk about it or admit to it. I can still remember that fear. It’s paralyzing. By doing what they are doing Will and Kate are changing the horizon.

A long time ago the Romans and Greeks thought mental illness was caused  by evil spirits. Stigma at its worst and most insidious. Unfortunately, there are still too many Romans and Greeks amongst us. When I was young, I fell for it. I believed they were right about me. But I don’t believe that anymore.  I haven't for a long time .