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Guest Blog: My thoughts on this World Bipolar Day

– Steve Gilbert OBE, Independent Consultant and Trustee of The Association

‘How did I end up here?’
If you were with me on Tuesday 6th July 2010 you would have found me sitting in a cramped cell, inside Steelhouse Lane Police Station (first opened in 1891 and now a museum). The noise was terrific. The continuous banging of the steel doors, loud shouts echoing off the Victorian brick walls, and the pounding of heavy police on the metal grating outside my room, filled the space. The smell of the glinting, stainless toilet, the stench of sweat from my fellow prisoners, and the wafts of whiskey from the afternoon drinkers hung in the heavy summer air, like the smell of a rotting cabbage patch. I could feel the experience of thousands of other previous detainees envelope me I waited patiently for someone to let me out. As I sat on the wooden bench staring at the large, heavy door, that prevented me from making an escape I asked myself, ‘how did I end up here?’.

Earlier that day I had started what I believed to be just ‘any other normal day’. I had my breakfast, drank my coffee and got dressed. However, this was not just ‘any other normal day’, and I wasn’t my ‘normal’ self. A few days prior I had fallen out with my friend, with whom I had been renting a room, and decided to ‘get some space’ for 30 days. With this decision, I jumped on my bike (a literal mountain bike) with a few items of clothing and my very expensive professional photography equipment and headed off to stay with a friend. Over the next few days, I proceeded to sell thousands of pounds worth of equipment, critical for my photography business, for a fraction of what they were worth. I decided to purchase a cheap Ford Fiesta. There were other highly risky, reckless and destructive behaviours I engaged in, but most worrying was the fact that I had no insight into my behaviour. I was on autopilot.

Eventually, a group of people came and opened the door of my police cell, though the two people at the fore of the formation were not police officers. Dressed in semi-casual clothing, a lady held a clipboard aloft and, as if reading from a script, informed me that ‘You are being detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act for the assessment and possible treatment of a mental illness’. I still remember looking around for the hidden cameras, waiting for someone to jump out and shout ‘Gotcha!’ for this to all have been some sick, ill-mannered prank. But there were no cameras,
there was no ‘Gotcha’! I was unwell, and I was in the midst of a manic episode.

About an hour later, I found myself in the back of a huge police minibus. With seats for 17 passengers, there was more than ample room for me and the two police officers tasked with ‘guarding me’ en route to the hospital. As I sat looking out of the large, clear windows, I captured a reflection of my exclusive transport. The words POLICE were emblazoned on the side of the vehicle in striking blue letters. I often wonder what passer-by’s thought I had done, the severity of my crimes and my final destination to warrant such an operation. I suddenly realised that the driver was heading in the wrong direction and that we getting lost. As much as I didn’t want to go to the hospital, I also didn’t want to spend another second longer in the custody of the police than I had to. ‘Take a left turn up here, follow it for half a mile, then take a right and follow it straight, that will take us to the hospital’. Silence. ‘You do know that we’re are going in the wrong direction?’. The silence continued. It would be a further 5 minutes before the team came to the same conclusion and altered our course of travel. That was the first time I experienced the stigma and discrimination of being a person with a mental illness. It was as if I didn’t exist, my voice ignored. Never mind the fact that I had lived in Birmingham all my life and knew these roads, I was mentally unwell and, therefore, could not be trusted. I could not even be engaged with. I have been blue-lighted to A&E on multiple occasions, when in my teens, and every time I had full conversations with the paramedics. Partly to keep me awake and partly to make me feel safe. But on this occasion, en route to a hospital, the police officers would not even glance in my direction, purposefully trying to avoid the fact that I was there. Maybe they were worried that they would catch my mental illness, who knows? I will never forget how they made me feel like a dangerous, toxic object as opposed to being a man who was severely unwell, tired, scared and in need of reassurance.

I spent 21 days in two hospitals which resulted in my diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder. I continue to have mixed feelings about how I got my diagnosis. On the one hand, the experience of being detained under S.136, the afternoon in the police cell, the trip in a police minibus, and the experiences in the second hospital were all painful and distressing in their own rights. But on the other hand, had I not endured these experiences, I’m not sure how much longer it would have taken for me to get a diagnosis and how much damage would have been caused to my life and relationships.

Are you aware of Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar is a severe mental illness characterised by extreme mood swings and changes in energy levels. Someone with Bipolar can have long or short periods of stability but can then go ‘low’ (into deep depression) or ‘high’ (experiencing hypomania, mania or psychosis). On the 8th November 2022, Bipolar UK presented the findings of the Bipolar Commission, which amongst other things, calls for a ‘better understanding of Bipolar in society’. Over 1 million people are living with a Bipolar Disorder in the UK; I am one of those people. I fully support the work of Bipolar UK and recommend that you download the report to learn more about the amazing work they are doing to improve the lives of people like me:

Are we making progress?
Thankfully Police Stations can no longer be used as a Place of Safety (PoS) for persons in a mental health crisis, with more and more dedicated s.136 suites popping up, ensuring that no one experiencing a manic episode today will end up in a Victorian hell hole as I did. So that’s progress, right? Sort of! S.136 suites vary significantly in design, from those built using principles of Psychological Safety to those that are austere and bleak at best.

As always, the real question is how do we avoid people living with Bipolar Disorders ending up in the care of the police in the first place, and the response always has to be one of investing in a prevention-first approach. The simple fact is that far beyond the obvious risks associated with both police involvement and involuntary detention under the MHA, these types of intervention are incredibly costly and do little to support the long-term mental health of persons with Bipolar. This money could be spent better, and the Bipolar UK Commission report sets out the plan for how we can do this and how we can develop ‘a dedicated care pathway so that people with Bipolar can have access to specialist treatment and continuity of support over a lifetime’.

Why I share
World Bipolar Day is ‘A day dedicated to raising awareness of the illness and to eliminating the stigma and discrimination people living with Bipolar Disorders face’. I hope that by sharing my experiences that others living with Bipolar will feel less alone and that people unfamiliar with Bipolar will gain a greater understanding of the challenges the illness brings.

Steve is an accomplished anti-racism leader coach, consultant & keynote speaker driven by his extensive experiences of navigating mental illness & racism. You can find him on Twitter @stevegilbertobe