Psychosis/ Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Destigmatising psychosis

Georgina Crothers discusses the importance of talking about and destigmatising psychosis in the mainstream media, reflecting on her own personal and family experiences. CW: mental illness, psychosis.

During Mental Health Week in May of this year, the BBC brilliantly kicked off a documentary series on celebrities’ stories of their mental health struggles. It started with Nadiya Hussain, talking about her troubles with anxiety and panic attacks. It also featured Alastair Campbell, speaking of his struggles with depression, the most predominant mental illness worldwide.

The student demographic in particular has seen an epidemic in the development of depression and anxiety, in part a result of the combination of academic and social pressures. It is fantastic that we have managed to normalise these issues and create safe environments within university grounds to talk about them, with the work of societies such as Warwick Mind Aware and university counselling services.

But do we hear, or even know, enough about what can ensue if depression and anxiety manifest and go untreated? Psychosis, which is sometimes a symptom of severe anxiety and depression, will be experienced by one in 100 people in the UK, but there are still layers of stigma attached to it.

Psychosis is a word I had never really heard spoken. Perhaps the word might have brought to mind Alfred-Hitchcock-type films or notorious serial killers. In other words, psychosis is surrounded by stigma. I didn’t really give much thought to the word until it became more personal to me than I ever thought it would.

Our summer then consisted of driving back and forth daily, met by the same sad, familiar faces of patients in similarly vulnerable places

David Harewood’s episode for the BBC, Psychosis and Me, which aired during Mental Health Week, struck a personal chord. For such a well-known figure to talk about his experiences with psychosis is a triumph in our journey to end the stigma. Harewood put the concept of psychosis in possibly the biggest spotlight mainstream UK media has ever seen, alongside Coronation Street’s powerful storyline where Carla Connor suffers an episode of psychosis.

Would anyone have expected that a talented, educated and successful actor like Harewood had ever “lost his mind”? Harewood reconceptualises psychotic mental illness in an emotionally-harrowing recount of his early 20s, when he endured two episodes of psychosis, in a way that destigmatises sufferers. The reality is, they are often far more of a danger to themselves than to others, and more isolated than anyone could imagine.

Psychosis is characterised by disorderly thoughts, hallucinations, the conviction or belief that you are something or someone you’re not, often through the hallucination of hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t truly there.

The first episode of psychosis often takes place in adolescence before the age of 24 for most people who are likely to develop it. However, it can produce itself at any age. It is important to recognise and normalise the possibility of psychosis so that sufferers can intervene as early as possible. It’s easy and very common for those developing symptoms to hide away in denial for fear of being judged or labelled as ‘crazy’.

It’s often interpreted as having a ‘split personality’, when rather, it’s a split between you and reality. A split between you and your world, and everything you’ve ever known

In Harewood’s documentary, he notes that huge chunks of his memory of the episodes are missing, yet another symptom. In one episode, he turns up three hours late to an audition, completely unaware, and in another, he makes his way to Camden at three AM to complete a task he’s been given through a delusion. When he is brought to the hospital by his friends, six police officers pin him down, which leads him to believe it’s the result of the uncompleted task, demonstrating further symptomatic paranoia and distrust.

Listening to Harewood gave me a flashback to a history I’m anxious to never relive. A family member of mine suffering a psychotic episode went missing. I stayed up that Wednesday night into Thursday morning, in and out of sleep for school the next day, police searching the bedroom for a toothbrush as DNA if needed, and I waited for phone calls to hear whether their helicopters had discovered, well, anything.

To all of our relief, my relative was found walking along the side of the road, dazed and confused as Harewood describes himself. Trapped and scared in a world that didn’t exist by the deceit of their own mind. Their second episode ultimately found them in an acute psychiatric ward, from which they would phone us nightly and in tears. Our summer then consisted of driving back and forth daily, met by the same sad, familiar faces of patients in similarly vulnerable places, some of whom didn’t even have family.

I have often said knowing someone who’s gone through psychosis brings you enormous grief, feeling as if you’ve lost someone. Worse yet, that person completely loses themselves for a period of time, perhaps longer

Psychosis is something that can develop from excessive use of cannabis due to THC, its psychoactive constituent. However, that’s often not the case, and it can develop from prolonged stress or severe trauma, particularly in childhood. Having a family history of psychosis, perhaps this says some are more predisposed than others.

Schizophrenia is the third most predominate mental illness worldwide, another stigmatic psychotic illness, yet we still don’t understand what it really is, nor do we treat it with the same understanding as depression or anxiety. It’s often interpreted as having a ‘split personality’, when rather, it’s a split between you and reality. A split between you and your world, and everything you’ve ever known. Complete isolation.

I have often said knowing someone who’s gone through psychosis brings you enormous grief, feeling as if you’ve lost someone. Worse yet, that person completely loses themselves for a period of time, perhaps longer.

No matter the loss, grief works in the same way. You can learn to cope better as time goes on, but the heartache never fully heals; you just need to search for further ways to fill yourself with hope and happiness for the future. From the days when I would cry what felt like every day in Sixth Form, I can say it does get better.

You cannot fix someone; you can support them wholeheartedly, but you cannot take their pain away, and that is not your fault

One day you’ll be able to speak, or write, about it without crying, and come to an acceptance and most importantly, be grateful for every little change you see. Maybe that person brushes their hair one day or takes an interest in the most mundane of things on the TV that morning; anything that shows a reconnection with reality. One of the hardest things to cope with as the family or friend of someone with psychosis is the guilt. You must remember, as with any mental illness, that you cannot fix someone; you can support them wholeheartedly, but you cannot take their pain away, and that is not your fault.

The more we discuss psychotic illnesses, the more we can reach out when we feel we are losing control and intervene early. Psychotic disorders are just as valid as the most mainstream of mental illnesses. It is so important that successful celebrities show that psychosis can impact anyone and spread the message that it’s possible to make a recovery. Sufferers of psychosis are often the most marginalised and ridiculed, but they possibly need the most acceptance and compassion through a time of extreme vulnerability.

More information and support is available at the NHS and Mind, along with other charities and support systems. You can also contact Wellbeing Support Services at the University of Warwick, or the Samaritans

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