In the past few months, we've seen a lot of questions about suicide and mental illness/wellness on GirlsAskGuys. These are important yet tricky topics to address and because of that, we thought we'd turn to a well-known individual in the field.
Welcome Natasha Tracy, an award-winning writer, speaker and social media consultant who helps educate people on the difficult topic of mental illness. As someone with bipolar disorder (and who has admitted to a suicide attempt), she brings a first-person perspective, which has been sought by various media and academic sources.
She is also the proud recipient of the Beatrice Sterm Media Award, and her website - Bipolar Burble - has been named a top 10 health blog by Healthista, Health.com and Healthline. Natasha has appeared on HuffPost Live and HealthiNation, and her writing has appeared on the Daily Mail (UK), Huffington Post, HealthyPlace, HealthLine and PsychCentral.
And now we're very happy to have her here. :)
GaG: What’s the #1 misconception people have about bipolar disorder?
Natasha: “I think it’s that we’re (people with bipolar disorder) are violent and unpredictable, that our moods fluctuate all the time and change instantaneously. People think I’ll go from having a nice conversation with them one minute, and being angry and even suicidal the next. We run into this all the time; people say things like, ‘Never get into a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder.’ While it’s true that studies have shown people with this disorder may have aggressive personality traits, they don’t show violent traits. Not unless there’s another problem, like substance abuse. I’d say that on average, the mood shifts only three times or less each year, which means a bad mood could last for months if left untreated.
That all being said, there are some people – a very small percentage – with bipolar disorder that have rapid cycling, and their mood does switch faster. But for most of us, those moods are a prolonged thing. So this concept of constant mood swings, that we’re always moody and volatile; that’s not at all what bipolar is.”
GaG: The stigmas surrounding bipolar disorder have changed over the years. Some even say it’s the “in” thing, as strange as that sounds. Why is this?
Natasha: “I wrote about this very recently: Is it actually fashionable to be bipolar? I think that with this disorder, some famous people – creative people like artists, musicians, etc. – have equated enhanced creativity and even fame with being bipolar. Now, there is a link between the disorder and creativity, that is true, but there is also an inordinate amount of pain.
There is nobody who actually has bipolar disorder that would ever want anyone else to have it. Everybody wants to be creative but nobody wants this huge amount of pain.
It’s only people who don’t understand the disorder who say these things. I would say that among the younger population where mental illness education is scant, they may fall victim to this ‘fashionable’ concept. But in the general population, nobody wants to claim they have a mental illness when in fact they don’t.”
GaG: Everyone experiences a little depression and anxiety in their lives. Does it frustrate you when people say they start saying it’s a disorder, even though it’s not MDD or GAD?
Natasha: “It is really frustrating because it denies the experience that people with mental illnesses really have. If you actually have a real anxiety disorder, you would know there’s lots of suffering. This suffering effects your life in a terribly negative way and depression is the same. So when people use the word ‘disorder,’ they’re usually just referring to discomfort and that’s very different from an actual disorder. The difference is that one really does affect your life while the other doesn’t. Being uncomfortable in certain situations doesn’t ruin your home life, your work life, your relationships. One of my favorite quotes is—
‘Mental illness is only a problem when mental illness is a problem.’
GaG: What’s your take on medication for mental illnesses like bipolar disorder?
Natasha: “The vast majority of people I know would rather do anything than be on medication for a psychiatric illness. People have this idea that if you go to a doctor and ask for an antidepressant, they’ll get a ‘happy pill’ but that’s not even remotely true. The medication aims to correct all the issues caused by a real disorder and if you don’t have the disorder, and there’s nothing to correct, the pill won’t do anything but give you side effects. We would really rather do anything than take these medications; it’s just that these treatments are the best medicine has to offer at this time.
I have tried many treatments for bipolar disorder and I do take some medications. I take a cocktail and I hate it. I really, really do. The side effects get me pretty much every day and I wish there was something better out there. I wish medicine had something better to offer me. But I want to say that through studies, we know that people with mental illnesses do better when they get a combination of medication and therapy. I’ve had many years of therapy and tried many types of therapy.
It’s critical for people with mental illness to have this therapy because it teaches you coping skills.
These skills are essential because they can help you through a rough patch, like thoughts of suicide. Not to mention that the support of a therapist can get you through some really bad times, too.”
GaG: Let’s say someone just got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. What would be your first words of recommendation to them?
Natasha: “The first thing I’d recommend is to educate themselves about the disorder. The problem with any mental illness is that most of us, myself included, only know what popular culture taught us when we’re first diagnosed. And that knowledge is typically incorrect. So you need to do research to get the facts; go to trusted sources of information. Not forums or random individuals but information put out by hospitals, written by doctors, etc.
Only after you truly understand the enemy you’re trying to fight can you successfully fight back.”
GaG: What might be their worst fear about this diagnosis?
Natasha: “It varies from person to person, that’s for sure, but there are two things that come up for most people:
First, the diagnosis means you’re going to have the disorder for the rest of your life, and the concept of a lifelong illness has got to be the scariest thing anyone can think of.
Most illnesses are temporary but bipolar, for example, is not. Second, they’re going to have treatment forever. That means medication forever and they have to learn new coping skills that they’ll need…again, forever. These things are extremely daunting; thinking about such a radical change that has happened to your life.
For me, when I realized I had bipolar, the concept of actually taking medication scared me so much because I grew up with an alcoholic father. So I knew a lot about addiction and I didn’t want to become an addict. But what I learned – and this is why learning is so important – is that there’s a big difference between being dependent on something and being addicted to it. A prescribed medication like a mood stabilizer isn’t going to cause the same kind of harm a street drug or alcohol could cause. I don’t consider myself an addict in any way, but it was one of my major fears.”
GaG: You say you’re doing a major survey of people who have experiences with etc; tell us more about that.
Natasha: “About six years ago, I was in a very bad place. I got laid off from a job that was extremely important to me and the medications weren’t working. So, I elected to try electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Early on, I’d sworn I’d never do it, but I got to a place where there were no other options for me. I saw a specialist on the matter and I ended up having 9 treatments. The treatments weren’t successful for me; they didn’t succeed in helping me with my depression.
But it’s just a medical treatment like any other and it needs to be treated as such. I saw a hugely debated area where people in the anti-psychiatry movement thought this treatment should be banned, and I felt it was important to stand up for it because it works for those who are very, very ill.
For people with few or no other options, electroconvulsive therapy has become a critical treatment, so I think the sigma surrounding this treatment needs to be removed.
About 100,000 people have these treatments every year, and they’re at the very depths of a bad illness. These treatments literally save their lives. So understanding all this, I tried to think of ways to educate others about not being biased against etc; about just taking a middle line and talking about it medically. Not pro-ECT or anti-ECT, just learning about it. This important survey is about getting feedback from those who have experiences with etc and my goal is to help future patients understand what other patients have gone through, to get their perspective. This way, they can have a statistical and neutral view of what the treatment is really like.
Hopefully, we can get a large pool of patients and then we’ll use that information and publish it in a peer-review journal.
We'd like to thank Natasha for her time, and make a small announcement to boot: She has generously offered to answer your questions concerning bipolar, mental illness, suicide, etc. We will post up a question on the site and you guys and gals can enter your questions in the comment section. Then, we will have Natasha come in and answer them for you. Keep an eye out for that!