I’ve been thinking about writing a blog for some time now, partly prompted by the debates about equity and diversity in education studied in my recently completed Masters. It was always clear to me what my main focus would be as it is a subject close to my heart. But my personal knowledge of the field also meant that I needed time to think about my approach, as it is a subject that makes some people uncomfortable.
An example of this would be at a recent seminar when we were asked to find out more about our neighbour. I enthusiastically discussed my disability, my management of it and my passion to be an advocate for others like me who were less able to have a voice. By being open and frank about my experience I could empower others to speak out and remove the stigma associated with it. But when we fed back to the main group, my new friend did not name my disability, it was my ‘sensitive issue’. And this has been my experience on many occasions, no matter how frank and open I am and the permissions I give to discuss my disability, others are still reluctant to call it for what it is. It is a ‘personal difficulty’ or a ‘time of difficulty’. I’m sure you’ve guessed what I am referring to, it is my mental illness; I have bipolar disorder.
It is hard for someone who has never experienced mental illness to imagine what it is like and the unknown can create fear or misunderstandings or incomprehension. Likewise empathetic people don’t want to say the wrong thing, to offend or upset someone. Or fear they might breach a confidence (something perhaps we are even more sensitive to in my own field of health and social care). And these are all valid explanations. But they are also the reason that I want to be open about who I am, so that others can have an insight into what life is like with bipolar disorder and to encourage other manic depressives to speak out.
Culture and upbringing have a big influence here. I was brought up in a working class family where disability was visible and cared for within the family. My mother had poor mobility and my twin brother was born partially sighted and attended a school for the blind. My happy childhood memories are of visually impaired children charging around on horseback. I grew up with a very positive perspective on disability, and especially visual impairment, which eventually led me into specialising in ophthalmic nursing (where patients would comment on my very natural and relaxed approach to guiding). When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was supporting newly registered blind and partially sighted people to come to terms with their blindness so had a practical knowledge of identity and disability.
But not everyone feels this way or has these experiences. In the summer I attended a Christian festival with a reputation for inclusivity. The Sunday morning communion was entirely presented by disabled people and was a joyful experience for me. But when I turned to a close friend and asked him what he thought about it, I was amazed to hear him say that he found it very negative. Momentarily shocked into silence (which doesn’t happen often) I asked why and found he was sad that so many people had to live with these problems. In K213 Health and illness we look at the research of Blaxter (2010) into lay people’s understandings of health and illness and his responses are similar to how she found other highly educated, well off young men view health, focussing on absence of disease and physical fitness.
Our culture and experiences construct our perspectives so divergence of opinion is to be expected. If attitudes towards mental illness are to change there needs to be a cultural shift away from stigma, shame and silence. I want to use my voice to embolden others to share their stories so that there is a wider understanding of the lives of those with mental illness. As an Associate Lecturer I particular want students’ voices to be heard so that we can have a greater understanding of their needs and facilitate them in a way which maximises their potential, and next year I hope to start doctorate study to research into the experience of distance education in those with mental illness. By looking at how it experienced now I hope to develop an understanding of how education should be delivered in the future.
(The discussions in this blog are my personal opinions and not necessarily the views of The Open University. I’m a reflective practitioner so they might not necessarily stay my opinions either )