Finding purpose through struggle

As many of us know, it’s important to talk and share our stories to help break down stigma around mental illness. For this reason, I share the stories of others who have had their own experiences separate to mine.

Today’s story is from Claudette who has bipolar disorder and is a mental health activist and campaigner. Her career background is in HR and the social care sector. Claudette has also worked in the legal sector and has been the manager of a women’s refuge. She is also a voice for domestic abuse.

My name is Claudette and in 2002, I suffered a major mental breakdown I was so ill I was unable to work. It took many years to find the correct medication and I was put on a cocktail of drugs and I had psychotherapy. I was given many different diagnoses including depression, severe anxiety and agrophobia but did not seem to make much progress. Gradually I started to feel better. In 2007 I became ill again and felt there was no way out of the dark hole that I seemed to be in. Again, I was tried on many medications and it took ages for them to work. I was unfairly dismissed from my job, this was an awful time. Eventually, I asked for a second opinion and was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. I was put on a new medication which keeps me stable. Do not get me wrong I still have bad days as I have other chronic health issues also. I have to deal with the highs and lows of bipolar.

In 2010 I decided that I wanted to do something to stop mental health stigma and I came across a campaign called Time to Change it had been set up to eliminate mental health stigma. I had experienced so much discrimination I felt I needed to get out there and do something.

I became involved with the Time to Change campaign, to try and eliminate the stigma of mental health. I became one of their champions and volunteered at events, holding awareness stands and gave talks to the various organizations about my personal journey and the stigma that I had experienced. I also explained the positives of the campaign and how it had helped me not feel isolated or ashamed. I now felt comfortable to share my journey and believe this has helped many people. Around this time, I wrote to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and asked if I could come and see him to discuss the stigma around mental health. I was amazed when I got a letter back inviting me to number 10 to meet his health advisor Greg Beales. That is a day I was very proud of.

When I met Greg, I told him how bad mental health stigma is and said one of the matters that concerned me was the fact that when people with mental health issues apply for jobs on the application it asks if you have a mental health issue or other disability. I said that this puts applicants at an unfair disadvantage as even if they have all the skills required. Employers do not want to employ them, Greg and I both felt that there needed to be a change to the law on this.

Rethink and Mind had also been campaigning on this issue and a few months later the law was changed under the Equality Act 2010, it is now illegal for a prospective employer to conduct pre-employment medical questionnaires unless it is intrinsic to the role. I believe this puts people at a much better advantage when applying for jobs and this applies to any disability.

What helped me

For me, becoming an activist gave me a purpose and a focus to distract me from my own issues by talking to others and sharing experiences, it made me into a stronger person as I knew there were others out there that were also going through stuff. By doing the stuff I do, I can turn something into a positive and realize that being bipolar is not a shameful thing. By sharing my story, I can help others who may feel ashamed. This lifted my mood. Also, being a voice for others has helped me because I am helping others.

Having a focus and some sort of routine really helped me, when I had a plan I felt better organised. This for me was very important as when I lack motivation, it just drags me down as I have no routine. I have seen a therapist, I was able to talk matters through and look at my thought process. This gave me the opportunity to identify my thought process and work out my behaviour having someone to talk to was so helpful as I was able to relate to my patterns of behaviour and see where I may have been going wrong.

Social media has played a big part in my journey. Before I knew about social media I felt so isolated and alone. By going on Facebook and Twitter, I have joined support groups and got involved in helping others by chatting to people in similar circumstances, this has made me see I am not the only one out there with a mental health issue.

Also, I have done focus groups with Mind and Rethink and continue to be a Time to Change Champion. Many people have come forward and shared their experiences. I was nominated for a Pringle Activist of the Year Award with Rethink. I did not win but it opened other doors for me. I won other awards too.

My message is never to give up and by getting involved in helping others it has given me a purpose, as I can turn my story into a positive. Also, I have met some wonderful people along the way.

Good luck!

You can connect with Claudette on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, tweet me @RachelKellyNet

Rachel Kelly