What's in a label . . ?

When I first starting dating my current partner, her parents did their homework on me. When they found out I’d been labelled ‘bipolar’, their reaction was akin to learning their daughter was dating Robert Mugabe.

There were tears. There may have been hair pulling. 

I like to think her father ran into the garden and fell on his knees in front of a full moon and howled NOOO!! Not a mental! Anything but a mental! 

To say they were not best pleased with her choice of boyfriend is an understatement.

And all because of a label. A name. 

In the only Shakespeare quote I can still remember from school, Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?’

Three hundred pages and a double suicide later, we find the answer – and it turns out that names are pretty important. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to discussing our mental health. Depression, Bipolar, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anorexia, Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – these are the kinds of names we’re given when we’re diagnosed with a major mental illness. 

It changes the way other people see and treat us. But perhaps most frightening of all, it can change the way we see ourselves

My own label is ‘bipolar’. Think Carrie from Homeland. But less attractive. And less smart.  And without the exciting job. Or a man. Actually I’m nothing like Carrie from Homeland, except that we share the same mental health label. 

And I guess that’s the first lesson about labels. They don’t define us. 

Just because we share one thing in common, doesn’t mean we share everything in common.  It doesn’t mean we’re the same kind of person. For me personally, this is something of a shame. The list of creative geniuses who are thought to have been bipolar includes; Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Mozart and Graham Greene. It would be easy to make a sweeping generalisation, and deduce from this list of luminaries that all people with Bipolar are probably creative geniuses, and therefore it’s very likely that I’m one too. That’s until you find out that Sting is also bipolar. And Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson for fuck’s sake. 

Put everyone with the same label in a room, and it would rich and varied in talent and personality. Our uniqueness as individuals cannot be labelled away. 

Perhaps the most complex part of being given a label is how it can alter the way we view ourselves. For some people, been diagnosed with a mental illness comes as a relief. It helps them make sense of their own lives, and to understand distressing or disruptive life events as symptoms of their illness. It gives them hope that with the right medication and treatment, their lives may change for the better.

Other people, myself included, wear their labels with some discomfort. I have experienced spectacular highs and devastating lows, and am a textbook case of someone with bipolar. 

But a large part of me doesn’t believe that I’m ill - this is just who I am! I don’t want my moods and experiences reduced to symptoms. They feel like essential and even defining parts of my personality. The highs have allowed me to do things that otherwise I’d find impossible, and the lows, although painful and sometimes dangerous, offer me a glimpse into a truth too difficult for most people to acknowledge.

If anything, I view the label bipolar as a broad description of a certain personality trait, rather than an illness. 

My point in all this, is that our labels are our own and it’s up to us how we see them. Others have given them to us, but it’s we who own them and have to live with them. It’s not for other people, psychiatrists included, to determine how we see ourselves.  To choose the meaning of your own life is to be empowered. Whether we embrace our labels, or choose to reject them, is entirely up to us. 

Much to their credit, my partner’s parents’ initial reaction was short-lived. They put aside their preconceptions and fears, and met me with generous spirits and open minds. More than that, they candidly discussed how and why my mental health label had worried them, and how reflecting on how the situation had helped them overcome the prejudice that is often attached to mental health issues. 

There’s a long way to go to reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and to challenge the prejudice around the associated labels. Maybe that conversation starts here, in places like Headcase, where we can share our experiences, and begin to demystify mental health. After all, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem this year. We might as well talk openly about it. 

Mike Snelle is an art dealer, an artist, a writer, a father, a Cambridge graduate and the founder of The Institute for Compassionate Living.