It's Time People With Bipolar Disorder No Longer Have To Feel 'Brave'

20/04/2011 16:16 | Updated 22 May 2015

It was good that Catherine Zeta-Jones came out of the bipolar closet, right? By releasing a statement telling the world she suffers from and was recently being treated for the disorder, she has certainly done some great PR for mental health charities, who must always be grateful when high-profile celebrities bring it into the public arena.

But while everyone's been talking about it, I have been thinking how very telling it is the way her story has been reported. Because most people think she's not only brave for dealing with a mental health issue, but for publicly admitting that she has one.

The courage on her part, as someone so very well known, was doing something that she must have guessed would alter people's perceptions of her forever. I don't suppose she'll ever pop out wearing sunglasses again without some tabloid or other surmising she's having a low day. She reportedly went out for a quiet meal with her husband after her five-day treatment at a clinic, and a 'source' (yawn) told the Daily Mail: "She looked calm."

Even if that proves to be her last ever episode of bipolar disorder symptoms, she'll always now be regarded in the context of mental illness, and her 'dark cloud', as she referred to it, is going to follow her round the red-tops whether she's feeling its presence or not.

I think what bugs me is that we still live in a world where it is considered brave to reveal you have mental health issues, because it just illustrates that still they are perceived as something to be ashamed of. I mean, unless you maybe did it falling off a celebrity's windowsill as you stalked them, you wouldn't 'admit' to having a broken collar bone would you? Just like you wouldn't 'admit' to having cancer, or multiple sclerosis. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health issue in the space of any one year – that's how common it is. So why does it remain so hard to get past the stigma?

Of course, the majority of people counted as having a mental health problem experience something mild and fleeting (a study conducted by the International Stress Management Association, for example, found more than half of people who worked had suffered from stress over the period of one year). But right now, you and I are statistically likely to know someone who has a more serious disorder, or longer-term depression. While myriad celebrities have talked openly about their illnesses (notably the inimitable Stephen Fry who made a documentary about bipolar, and believes his own experience of it may have actually aided his career in some ways), it remains much, much harder for normal people to do so.

While it is easy to say the difficulty lies in understanding what can not be perceived, not everyone will partner their mental health disorder with a tangible manifestation, such as major substance abuse or just looking bloody awful, a la Amy Winehouse a few years ago. And it seems to me that society at large and, importantly, employers have very limited patience when it comes to 'invisible' mental health issues. That's a major factor in sufferers feeling their depression or anxiety as a weakness and I know I have witnessed people return to work too soon because they sensed they were running out of goodwill.

The fact is we are at odds with ourselves, because this is not prejudice against a tiny minority. Catherine Zeta-Jones joins an estimated 2.4 million people in the UK who live with bipolar disorder. It's really time we stopped telling those people, and the many others wondering and yet to be diagnosed, that they are 'brave to admit' something about themselves which they in fact have in common with almost 4 of the population taken in the wider context.

Of course, people will never tap their temple and say: "Hey, what went wrong up there?" in the same way they'll ask how you broke your collar bone. But it would be nice to think, as it will potentially touch all of us at some point whether directly or indirectly, we're moving towards a time when people suffering from a mental health problem don't feel they have to steel themselves and drum up the courage to tell people about it.


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