So I wake up one morning in a room with nothing in it but a bed and bars on the window, and I spend the day trying desperately to explain my way out of that room with no success. By the following morning the anti-psychotic medication has started to work and I realise I was wrong. These past days my reality has been completely different to the truth. There are no mirrors, so I can’t see what I look like. But I know I can’t possibly feel like this and still look like me. So, I ask my husband to take a picture of me so that I can see what it looks like to be this sick.
One of the reasons mental illness can be challenging to understand is because (unless there are other concurrent illnesses) there may not be obvious visual cues that the patient it unwell. There are no casts or bandages, no missing limbs, missing hair, oxygen canisters, wheelchairs. Some mental illnesses can produce severe physical symptoms (think panic attacks or catatonic depression). However, there may also be no ‘physical’ symptoms, and depending on the type and severity of the illness the sufferer can look completely normal.
And yet the attack these illnesses mount on a patient’s thoughts and behaviours often results in a complete loss of self. Who are we if we are not in control of what we think or do?
I have included these pictures of me to try and show that destruction of self, and its subsequent resurrection following successful treatment. Psychosis in a Special Care Unit is an extreme example, but it is also rare visual evidence of what a mental illness can look like.
The other picture was taken about 6 months later. I still have the mental illness, but I have completely recovered from that psychotic episode, and the catatonic depressive episode that followed it. These images are evidence that even severe mental illness can be successfully managed with excellent care and an absence of stigma in the patient’s life. I was lucky, we can afford private health insurance. This meant I was diagnosed and treated very rapidly so I recovered relatively quickly. Sadly, many patients with much less serious mental illness than mine are suffering more than they need to be because they don’t have access to good or even adequate care, and stigma surrounding mental illnesses still forms a huge barrier to successful treatment.
(Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2017)
Other pieces and events from Qld Mental Health Week 2017: