Psychosis And Me: David Harewood Retraces His Psychotic Breakdown In Emotional Documentary

"I lost my mind," recalls the Homeland actor.

For people in the grips of a psychotic breakdown, it’s the most terrifyingly real experience. It’s relatively common too, psychosis affects roughly one in 100 people in the UK. Yet many people either don’t know about it or don’t fully understand it.

Homeland actor David Harewood has opened up about his experience of psychosis some 30 years ago. In an emotional documentary, which aired on BBC 2 and is available on iPlayer, he spoke to medical professionals, friends and family members about his psychotic breakdown which saw him hallucinating, hearing voices and experiencing delusions. His mission was to find answers regarding what caused his psychotic episode. Why him?

The documentary will undoubtedly hit home for many people who have lived with, or supported someone with, psychosis. But it’s also an important watch for those who know nothing about the mental illness. As Harewood points out, it’s hugely stigmatised.

It’s an emotional watch as Harewood relives his past through the memories of those closest to him, as a lot of it he can’t remember. At points, he ends up in tears. For those who missed it, or want to know more, here’s what we learned.

C Flanigan via Getty Images

1. Stigma Is Rife.

“When we talk about psychosis, there’s still that stigma,” said Harewood. “Even I say I had a breakdown. If someone was to say somebody was psychotic you’d instantly think they were crazy, dangerous, mad, raving, loony. That’s what we think when we talk about psychosis.”

Recounting his personal experience, Harewood said he would go for long walks and would black out, unable to remember where he’d been or what he had done. He would then “wake up” and become lucid, but not know how he got there. It would be 2am, and he’d be in Camden. At one point he thought he could control time and use his watch to change it, making his own reality.

2. Everyone’s Psychosis Is Different.

When it comes to psychosis, no two people will experience it in the same way. Yet there are three main strands that characterise it. The first and perhaps most commonly-known symptom is a hallucination, where a person hears, sees and, in some cases, feels, smells or tastes things that aren’t there.

While for some people hearing voices can be, to a certain degree, comforting (for example, if it’s the voice of a loved one who has passed away), in a lot of instances, hallucinations and delusions cause severe distress, making the person experiencing them feel anxious, scared, threatened or confused.

Harewood said he experienced visual and audible hallucinations. He talks about a time when he sat looking in the mirror, convinced his reflection was going to move, that they would swap sides and cross into each other’s reality.
“I felt like I wasn’t real,” he said. He also heard voices, including from Martin Luther King. “It was clear as a bell in my head,” he said.

Delusions, where a person has strong beliefs that aren’t shared by others, are another symptom of psychosis. A common delusion is someone believing there is a conspiracy to harm them. In Harewood’s case, he believed he was almost god-like. He showed a picture he had drawn, a self-portrait showing magic coming from his fingers and something coming from his brain – he looked like a superhero.

Thought disorder is another characteristic of psychosis, where a person becomes confused or has disturbed thoughts.

3. It Can Be Terrifying For Those Experiencing It.

Harewood reflects on being scared when he was experiencing psychosis, especially as he couldn’t remember huge chunks of time. ”I lost my mind,” he said. It progressed to the point where he thought he was dying and his friends rushed him to A&E. There, he became manic and police had to pin him to the ground. He was later sectioned and treated.

4. People’s Delusions Have Shifted Over Time.

In the documentary, Harewood meets with consultant psychiatrist Dr Erin Turner, who explains that people’s delusions have changed as technology has become more prevalent in people’s lives. She offers the example that a lot of people used to have delusions about religion (for example, God telling them to do things), but as society has become more secular she’s seen a shift and more people are having social media-based delusions.

5. Psychosis Doesn’t Happen Out Of The Blue.

Dr Turner explains that psychosis tends to build up over time, so it might start as anxiety or stress, which then evolves into psychotic symptoms. She says significant trauma, a family history of psychosis, smoking cannabis and high pressure jobs can all expose a person to psychosis.

It’s also very much a physical issue. Dr Turner says an excess of dopamine in the brain can play a part in the development of delusions and hallucinations.

Harewood recognises there were a mixture of things which probably contributed to his psychotic episode: he was young, away from home and working hard to become an actor. He was also smoking cannabis and drinking a lot. He recalls going to an audition in Soho and knowing exactly where he needed to go, but he just couldn’t find it. He arrived three hours after the audition started and said the casting director could tell something wasn’t right.

In the documentary he calls her, 30 years on, to discuss what happened that day. She explained he turned up and said he was “really good, really well” and then said something unusual to her: “It’s difficult when you’re an alien.” In retrospect, he can recognise this is an early warning sign.

6. Psychosis Tends To Present In Adolescence.

A person’s first episode of psychosis is likely to occur between the ages of 18 and 24, yet research from charity Rethink Mental Illness suggests fewer than one in five (17%) young people would be confident in spotting the early signs. Meanwhile one in four (26%) have never even heard of it.

University and college students have also been encouraged to be aware of the warning signs of psychosis as some people first encounter mental health problems when they move away from home and family.

7. Early Intervention Is Crucial.

In the documentary, Harewood meets with two young people at an Early Intervention drop-in group in Solihull. They experienced psychosis and credit early intervention with saving their lives.

Leaving psychosis untreated can have serious consequences, Laura Peters, head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness, previously told HuffPost UK. In the most serious cases, psychosis can become more severe and evolve into schizophrenia.