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Hidden illnesses: Behind bipolar disorder and mental health stigma

'Only 2,000 of the 6,000 bipolar disorder patients in Malta are open about their condition to their friends and families', says co-founder of the Bipolar Self-Health group

Denise Grech
1 November 2017, 11:01am
Albert and Lina McCarthy: Grateful that stigma associated with mental health is on the decline
Albert and Lina McCarthy: Grateful that stigma associated with mental health is on the decline
Bipolar disorder is a mental health stigma which is driving sufferers into hiding as more than 4,000 patients suffering from this ‘invisible’ disease remain either unaware of their situation or are afraid to come forward. The illness, also known as manic-depressive illness, causes unusually frequent mood swings and shifts in energy and activity levels.

The Bipolar Self-Help group that set out to reassure families in need of help due to this disorder, brings together families of sufferers in an effort to combat the mental health stigma. 

“Someone’s mental health does not define them,” co-founder and bipolar disorder survivor Albert McCarthy said. “You are not your condition,” he insisted.

Only 2,000 of the 6,000 bipolar disorder patients in Malta are open about their condition to their friends and families, he said. 

“When my husband was diagnosed, I knew nothing about the condition. I realised that, just like me, many families out there don’t know about bipolar disorder and need someone to lean on,” wife and co-founder Lina McCarthy said.

Speaking to MaltaToday, the couple opened up about the dangers of the condition, saying that during episodes of mania – one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder – people may end up spending money recklessly, without being conscious of the situation. Relatives are often left to deal with the brunt of financial losses as a result.

Another hazard related to manic episodes is that a person’s elated state leaves them vulnerable to loan sharks, gambling and other forms of addiction. And once again, members of the family and the patients themselves will somehow have to deal with the consequences afterwards.

Furthermore to, literally, add insult to injury, bipolar disorder also causes strong depressive episodes, when the persons who undergo the mental trauma feel ashamed of themselves and the reckless decisions they took during their manic states. 

“One of the greatest dangers of the condition is that patients are prone to suicidal tendencies after their manic episodes,” Lina McCarthy said. 

The couple insisted that being open to diagnosis of mental health illness spares many families from increasing financial and emotional stress. 

But mental health stigma means many are still afraid to approach their GP to talk about their behaviour. 

“Sometimes, it’s enough for our participants to admit their diagnosis,” Lina McCarthy said. “The hardest part of our self-help group is seeing people who refuse to seek help because they are afraid of being judged for it.”

For this reason, the couple encourages those who believe they might be affected by the symptom to visit their general practitioner.  

“You shouldn’t be afraid of visiting your doctor,” said Albert McCarthy. “Families are often more supportive than you believe.”

Using words like ‘crazy’ casually to describe people with mental health problems continues to perpetuate the mental health stigma and alienate sufferers from accessing help, he added.

“Before we came out into the open, we spoke to our children and wives because we were afraid that their kids would get bullied, with their classmates teasing them about their ‘crazy grandfather’,” he continued.

The couple, however, admit that the stigma has changed over time, saying that the number of people who are open about the condition has risen. Family members are also more accepting of relatives who suffer from bipolar disorder.

The Be Positive Self Help group organise a monthly meeting at the Russian Chapel in San Anton Gardens.