This week is Mental Health Awareness week, so I’d like to tell you a story that may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s about my journey through bipolarism and how it changed my life for the better. Personally and creatively. I know – you don’t hear that very often. But I went into the experience one person and came out another. I wouldn’t have had such a successful creative career without it.
The reason I want to share my story is because people tend to automatically place mental health issues in the ‘negative’ bucket. They only see them as a drawback, a risk, a reason not to fully engage with someone. But for me, that just wasn’t the case. I want people to see that there can be positive aspects to slipping outside the definition of ‘normal’.
It started in my early 20s. I’d been made redundant from my first job in the advertising industry and I was struggling to find another one. So I’d been applying to lots of other industries in sheer desperation. Over a period of four months, I’d collected a stack of over 200 rejection letters from jobs I’d applied for. These were from the small percentage of companies that were decent enough to respond. I felt crushed and worthless. Two university degrees surely gave me an advantage in the market, so clearly I was the problem. All evidence pointed to me being a sub-par human being that didn’t deserve even the crappiest of the jobs I’d been applying for.
Sadness led to misery. Misery led to despair. Despair led to depression.
My brain stopped functioning in the way I was used to. I started to disappear inside my own head. Hours would pass with me having no awareness of my surroundings. And then something beautiful happened: I started to have manic episodes.
Let me explain what that was like for me. I felt like a god. And that’s because I was a god. My mind no longer worked like a mortal’s. I went from thinking in two dimensions to suddenly functioning in technicolour 3D. I could think more than one thought at a time. I could see things with a clarity I’d never experienced before. The impossible seemed possible. And I felt like I could change the world.
During this period I came up with theories to tackle climate change, I wrote poetry, I composed music, I invented products and I came up with the idea for Facebook (seriously). I wouldn’t sleep for days while I furiously scribbled down my thoughts.
And then came the crushing hopelessness of depression. A dark and wretched lethargy would smother all light and hope. I would cry until there were no more tears left. I had never felt so empty and worthless.
But the ups made the downs worth it. More than worth it. They changed the entire course of my life.
Before the blessing of bipolarism, I was a meek, unambitious procrastinator. After my experience, I had energy, focus, clarity and drive. Before, I barely had the ability to change my hairstyle (I actually had hair back then). Afterwards, I believed I could change the world.
I harnessed my new-found focus and ambition and poured all my energy into improving my creative portfolio. It took me two months to get back into the ad industry. Within five years I was leading creative departments in London.
There’s nothing special about my story
I’ve been quite open about my experience. Over the years, that’s led to lots of colleagues quietly confessing their own mental health issues to me. Some would tell me about their crippling anxiety, their obsessive compulsive disorder or their depression. Others would confess their struggles with ADHD, dyslexia and dyscalculia (mental variances rather than mental health issues). These people were from all levels of seniority. And I was often the first person they’d told about it.
Initially, I was surprised at how many people were having difficulties with their mental health. But it turns out I was way off the mark. There are even more people struggling with their minds than I could have imagined. Recent estimates state that around one in six adults in the UK meet the criteria for a common mental disorder.
If one in six people had the flu, it would be all over the news. The country would be in a panic.
This is an epidemic. And not enough people are talking about it.
Turn your understanding of mental health on its head
I’m fortunate that my experience was so positive. If my condition had been more severe, the outcome could have been very different. I’m very grateful for that.
All the people who have spoken to me about their issues could be described as ‘functional’. They were still managing to hold down jobs while privately wrestling with their minds. But there was one piece of advice that helped many of them. It was to start thinking of their condition as a superpower.
You see, being different makes you special. People who have suffered from depression tend to be more empathetic. Those who suffer from OCD tend to have a better eye for details. Those with dyslexia tend to have a more visual approach to problem-solving than others.
Rather than seeing what makes you different as something that makes you less than others, look for the advantage it offers you.
It’s time to speak out
If you’re in the UK, you’ll have noticed that the royals have been speaking out about their own mental health struggles in recent weeks. That’s great. And more people need to do that. Especially senior businesspeople.
Mental health problems can lead to people feeling isolated and misunderstood. It’s a lonely experience when you think everyone else is ‘normal’ and you’re the only one going through your struggle. Speaking out doesn’t just help you, it helps other people.
Fortunately, a few prominent people are publicly sharing their own struggles. You can see insightful interviews with people like Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax, Simon Woodroffe and other successful people on the Head Talks website. It’s clear that mental health issues don’t have to hold you back. In fact, for many, it’s what drives them forwards.
But it’s not just individuals that need to be open about mental health issues – organisations need to open up too. Openness, honesty and humanity are good for business. They lead to loyalty, shared purpose and people feeling freer to share their ideas.
Have a public policy
Employers need to consider the one-in-six statistic mentioned above. It means that about 17% of your staff are trying to do their job while suffering from a common mental disorder. If you want to get the best out of everyone, you need to acknowledge this fact and have policies to deal with it.
But don’t just keep it as a piece of dull HR guidance. Or even as a page on the company intranet. Make it public. Make sure everyone knows about it and understands who to speak to. Show your employees that you care about them and want them to be the best they can be.
Better still, actively do things to help look after your staff’s mental health. Like redirect all their email when they’re on holiday. Or offer free counselling. Or even put on regular mindfulness sessions. Your actions (and employment contracts) say more than your words ever will.
Where my mental health is now
I’m hugely fortunate. I’ve never suffered from depression quite as severely again. Through the years I’ve sensed the black dog sniffing around and successfully made changes to stop myself from being badly bitten. The way I do that is to set myself a meaningful challenge and immediately get to work on it. I’ve learned to understand what works for me.
But I feel fortunate to have ended up with this superpower in the first place. I’d like to invite more of my fellow superheroes to throw off their masks and share their true identities
Dave Birss is editor of Open for Ideas – an online magazine dedicated to demystifying creativity – where this article was originally published. It has been reproduced here with Dave's permission.
This year, The Drum will be calling on the marketing industry to use its skills to help mental health causes at The Drum Do It Day. More details soon.