Noirin, a group organiser and HSE forum member from Limerick

Stigma is described as a disgrace as if you have something to be ashamed of. It sets us apart from others. I have been stigmatised for half of my life, feeling inferior to others, treated like a second class citizen, just because I have spent time in a psychiatric hospital. While I was in and out down through the years I received only two get well cards and very few visitors. Why should your physical health be any different from your mental health. Our brain is part of our body and needs to heal the same way and not be alientated. I was branded bi-polar for life and this follows me around like a shadow. Certain people avoid me. I don’t think I’m any different to anyone else. I do everything possible to stay well. I recognise the triggers. I have a great support mechanism around me that I’m most grateful for. Mental health is still a taboo subject.

I’ll give you an example of stigma. I was on the bus returning home last Wednesday from creative writing. I made room for a lady with a trolley. We began to talk about the weather, as you do. I said to her “Weren’t the floods terrible in Queensland”. A young man in front of us turned around abruptly. He said “Are there still floods in Queensland?” We chatted away and I asked him his name, David, he said. “I’m in the Special Olympics”, he said. He was very excited. “I’ve saved a hundred goals – I counted them in my head”, he said. “Fair play to you David, you’re a great young man. My name is Noirin”, I said. We continued to chat and I found him very sociable. The lady next to me stayed quiet and never engaged in the conversation. When David got off the bus he gave me a royal salute and said he hoped to meet me again.

When he was gone, I turned to the lady next to me and said “Wasn’t that a lovely young man”. She said “You were great with him – I wouldn’t be able to talk to him”. “Why not”, said I, “sure isn’t he just the same as the rest of us only he expresses himself differently”. She said nothing. I wonder whether she would have shunned me too had she known I was bi-polar. It just brought home to me how people stigmatise others.

Everyone has a brush with mental health problems at some stage in their lives but because they haven’t been put in a box or labelled they think they are superior to us. If any of you have suffered a psychotic episode it is the most terryfying ordeal and also for the people around you. I have said and done things during these episodes that I’m not proud of. But I have to forgive myself and others have to forgive me.

I now recognise the signs with the help of the WRAP (wellness recovery action plan) programme, a fantastic lady psychiatrist and a community nurse that calls every fortnight. I’m glad that I’m putting the past behind me, attending my groups and meeting amazing people who show such empathy and a great camaraderie.